THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Django Unchained is everything you want from a Quentin Tarantino movie, with a few new things added in. Tarantino has mastered colorful dialogue and funky, uber-violent action. Now he reveals a social awareness previously unseen in his work. The film offers as unflinching a depiction of slavery as has ever been projected onto a screen. Whereas the director showed a recognition of the Holocaust's tragedy in Inglourious Basterds, he primarily used it as a vehicle for a revenge fantasy. Django is also a revenge fantasy, yet one can sense a genuine anger over slavery bubbling through his trademarks.
Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who, in the opening minutes, is rescued by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz needs him to point out three brothers he's been hired to track down. Django, having suffered greatly at the brothers' hands, is more than happy to oblige. The two develop a friendship in the process, and Schultz eventually trains Django in the art of bounty hunting. During this time, Django confides that his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is still being held as a slave, and is likely being mistreated. They hatch a plot to rescue her from “Candieland,” a plantation owned by the joyfully sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Operating under the guise of wanting to purchase a Mandingo fighter, Django and Schultz enter into an uneasy bargaining session with Candie, whose servant Stephan (Samuel L. Jackson) is perhaps even more suspicious of Django than his master.
It's no wonder actors love to be in Quentin Tarantino movies. His characters have multiple levels, and they get to say the most delightfully written lines. Django Unchained is no exception. The title character goes on an extraordinary journey from unfairly repressed victim to avenging angel. As he gets closer to rescuing his wife, his thirst for vengeance becomes unquenchable. Jamie Foxx wisely plays the transition with subtlety, knowing that all will become clear in the final act, when Django truly does become metaphorically unchained. He displays great chemistry with Christoph Waltz, whose Schultz is a master wordsmith. Always over-articulating his words, Schultz can – and does – talk his way into and out of any situation. If Django has the motive to get even with brutal white slave owners, Schultz provides the means for him to do it, by giving him access to situations he'd otherwise be shut out of. As the primary villain, Leonardo DiCaprio chews the scenery in the best possible way, creating a Candie who is openly duplicitous, flaunting his cruelty while still acting the part of Southern gentleman. He is a bad guy for the ages. Last but not least, there's Samuel L. Jackson, who has perhaps the trickiest role in the whole picture. His Stephen comes off as even more oppressive than Candie, but we know that it's just a survival instinct. He's somehow been able to earn Candie's trust, and his willing participation in the degradation of other black slaves is a way of saving his own ass. Jackson does a fantastic job straddling this line.
Django Unchained, like all Tarantino films, borrows from its maker's influences; in this case, the biggest influence is a 1966 spaghetti western called Django, which featured Franco Nero as a gunslinger taking on the KKK. Tarantino turns the character into a slave, while keeping the gunslinging elements and the battle against racism, then adding his own distinct touch. The director's mocking of racists is most evident in a comic scene in which a proto-KKK group bickers over the effectiveness of their new hoods. Scenes such as this exemplify the way Tarantino can nudge a laugh from dark, uncomfortable scenarios. As always, it's electrifying.
So is the action – but only when appropriate. Acts of violence hit hard and often come in unexpected ways. What's different this time is that Tarantino seems profoundly disgusted by the atrocities of slavery, so he separates the way violence is portrayed. Scenes in which blacks are mistreated are shown in their full horror. The one that got me most is a sequence in which Candie has two fighters brutally duking it out to the death in his parlor room, while he and another slave owner causally watch. You don't even see that much, yet it's made clear that innocent, decent men are being treated in a subhuman manner, forced to endure agony for the amusement of callous whites. The brutality of slavery is taken quite seriously, its victims treated respectfully. Only when white folks get hurt does Tarantino indulge his grandest impulses. Each and every payback is operatically staged, with blood spurting (symbolically reddening a field of cotton, in one shot) and bodies exploding. By varying his approach to the violence, Django Unchained becomes both his acknowledgment of slavery's injustice and an expression of his belief that the MF-ers who participated in it should have been harshly punished.
While I certainly wish Broomhilda had been slightly more developed – and that Tarantino had denied himself a painfully awkward third-act cameo - I think Django Unchained represents a step forward for the filmmaker. Most of his movies display a love for other movies. This one displays that love too, but also an emotional connection to the subject matter. QT is ashamed by part of our country's history, and he's crafted a powerful, dazzling, insanely entertaining movie out of that rage.
( out of four)
Django Unchained is rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!