Django Unchained (Sue)

Rating:

Spaghetti Slavery: Django Unchained

Main Cast: Jamie Fox, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo di Caprio

Director: Quentin Tarantino

It has been my policy, for years, to dislike everything about Quentin Tarantino.  His movies, his public persona, the whole package.  So you can imagine my dismay when his 2012 movie, Django Unchained, racked up a whole pack of Academy Award nominations, including, to my horror, one for Best Picture.  I try to see the Best Picture nominees each year and this news was particularly unwelcome.  But I was prepared to sit through and hate yet another one of his movies for the sake of Oscar completism.  You know, ever the movie martyr.  I was completely unprepared to actually like the stupid thing.

Django Unchained is a spaghetti western homage style anti-slavery movie.  Yeah, that sounds weird and odd and unappealing.  Yet somehow, through a combination of writing, performances and the meshing of disparate genres, the movie works on a whole lot of levels.  Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave being walked in chains from a slave auction in Texas with a small group of other men to their new “home”.  When the procession is stopped by a strange gentleman looking specifically for this slave, wishing to purchase him from his new owners, Django’s life in the pre-civil war south takes a radical turn for the weird.

His new “owner”, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) is a former dentist

Quentin Tarantino by Georges Biard
Quentin Tarantino

turned bounty hunter.  He has no stomach for slavery, but needs Django to help him identify a trio of high profit fugitives.  He recognizes that in order to do his job, earn his money and stay clear with the law he needs to have a proper bill of sale for Django.  The law doesn’t specify how he has to obtain it.  Schultz is good at what he does and treats Django as a free man, schooling him in the craft of bounty hunting while allowing him to adjust to a life out of shackles.  When the pair decides it’s time to find (and reclaim) Django’s wife, well, things get even more interesting.

There is so much going on in Django Unchained that it’s difficult to give a plot summary that doesn’t feel slight and unrepresentative of the film.  At more than 2 ½ hours long, the movie takes Django from a battered slave in chains to a valet (!) to a free man and more.  Along the way, Tarantino plays with the characters, letting them gain a little complexity while they kill bad guys, upset the racial balance and contemplate their navels via witty banter.

Unlike my usual reaction, this particular banter doesn’t seem forced and self absorbed.  The homage also doesn’t seem like an unnecessary, tacked-on bit of self-indulgence.  It is the relationship between, and the performances of, Foxx and

Christoph Waltz by Georges Biard
Christoph Waltz

Waltz that provide the glue that binds all of Tarantino’s peculiar habits into a very watchable, entertaining whole.  The pair stands out as outcasts in their world, yet play that to their advantage rather than letting it control their lives.  Schultz is smart and brutal and Waltz plays him with a deadly whimsy that’s really, really hard not to let topple into caricature.  And it never does.  Foxx is at turns bewildered, filled with rage, calculating, and supremely cool.  Foxx makes those swings seem like a natural course under such peculiar circumstances rather than some vast array of mental illnesses.  This pair of actors takes Tarantino’s meandering script and pulls it together through sheer force of will.

Not that the screenplay (also an Oscar winner for Tarantino) is bad – it definitely isn’t.  It just isn’t for amateurs.  The disparate elements need to be handled with care so that they both make sense within the larger scheme of the movie and make their points as social commentary (or homage or just silliness).  The best of these elements comes from the spaghetti western homage.  Honestly, Tarantino can’t make anything that isn’t paying homage to something, and I usually hate it.  But it

Jamie Foxx by Georges Biard
Jamie Foxx

works here.  Taking the bad special effects and the massive bloodletting and allowing them to make the very real and deadly serious issue of the treatment of slaves a little less realistic doesn’t diminish the impact of those scenes, but allows the viewer to watch them without wanting to vomit.

The peripheral players all do their part, particularly Leonardo di Caprio as a vicious plantation owner, Kerry Washington as Django’s wife and Samuel L. Jackson as di Caprio’s house slave.  We also get a lot of small performances from recognizable names like Carradine, Wopat, Tamblyn, Dern and Bellamy.  Jonah Hill and Don Johnson even show up for a while.  Tarantino himself has a small part and I enjoyed that he wasn’t at all averse to blowing himself up.

Overall, Django Unchained is really a lunatic action movie with some fairly deep social commentary given a boost by a smart script and two outstanding performances.  Be prepared for the abundance of carnage, but if you like the action or western genres, you’ll probably like it.  If you like Tarantino, I imagine you’ll love it.  If you hate Tarantino you should give it a shot – I was a pretty tough convert and he got me. 4 out of 5 stars (losing one for the sheer bulk of the thing).

photos by Georges Biard

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