Dir. by Quentin Tarantino - 2 hrs. 45 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
This was certainly worth the wait. And "Django Unchained" is another on the list of films from 2012 that both played broadly and were excellent movies. Yeah, I'm biased, I always look forward to any new Quentin Tarantino project, but this film stacks up against the rest of his work, save for "Pulp Fiction." So let's get down to why this was a really good movie!
About two years before the American Civil War (as a subtitle helpfully explains), Django (Jamie Foxx) and a handful of other slaves are being marched through Texas to wherever they're going to end up. A German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), has sought out the slave traders directing this march in order to purchase Django. It turns out that Dr. Schultz isn't a dentist (at least not currently one), but instead is a bounty hunter, and Django can recognize the Brittle Brothers (who all have sizable bounties on their heads), and Django eventually ends up being drawn into the bounty hunting business. But Django has a larger goal; he has to track down his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was deliberately sold to another plantation out of spite for Django. Dr. Schultz agrees to help (there is a famous German myth about a Broomhilda), and they eventually set out for Mississippi and Candieland (I promise it makes sense in the context of the movie).
There is a broad compliment to be paid to Tarantino and "Django Unchained:" this did not feel like a nearly-three hour film. There might not be anything worse than a long, mediocre film, and "Django" was definitely not mediocre. One of Tarantino's signature strengths is the ability to build tension within a scene, usually for way longer than you'd figure possible. He also usually writes characters who have both a plan and a flair for the dramatic, which means that as soon as you figure out who's going to be butting heads with whom, you know that it's going to play out spectacularly. And also, something that you'd figure is going to be the main thrust of the film (in this instance, it would have been the first act's arc of Dr. Schultz and Django tracking the Brittle brothers) ends up resolving unexpectedly and quickly, and then the characters are on to bigger and better things. In practice, this allows for Tarantino to construct a film of mini-movies; "Django" probably could have played out over the course of three films if he had wanted to do things in that manner.
Also, as is standard for a Tarantino movie, he gets exactly what he needs from each of the primary actors. Waltz is fantastic, playing a calm, clever man who is always one step ahead of the situation (until he gets in a little over his head with Calvin Candie). Jamie Foxx is also fantastic, hitting the right notes all along. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the biggest villain of the film in Calvin Candie, proprietor of mega-plantation Candieland, makes the intellectual duel between himself and Dr. Schultz interesting. Candie isn't supposed to be as smart as Dr. Schultz, but he's got the home-field advantage and is vastly more sadistic. Honestly, the worst thing you could say about any of the actors in this cast is that they did what they were supposed to, and let the stars shine. Don Johnson and Walton Goggins also have memorable, brief roles.
As per usual, whenever there is a new Tarantino movie, there is inevitable hand-wringing about the racial language used. And let's be very, very clear, Tarantino uses every possible slur in that vein imaginable. It's not my place to defend or prosecute here. Instead, I propose two things. First, it's clear that Quentin Tarantino is not interested in making palatable "entertainment." The vast majority of movies produced aim to go down easy, with no aftertaste. That is not what "Django Unchained" is. To put it into professional wrestling terms, the scourge of the industry is a "cool heel." That means a bad guy who gets to do all the things that make someone a bad guy, but does it in such a way that he ends up getting cheered for his bad behavior. It completely screws up the good guy/bad guy dynamic that morality tales usually are. But it's way easier to do that than to get an audience that's pretty onto all of the tricks to still boo you. It's a testament to a given wrestler's talent and skill to be able to genuinely get under the skin of an audience that is in on the secret. Movies are kind of the same way. It's way, way easier to just fill up a story with a bunch of stylish baddies than it is to build up just one villain that an audience will genuinely hate, which is necessary if you expect anyone to care about your hero and his story.
The Calvin Candie character manages to pull that off. You're not supposed to like him, even as he displays his hospitality and seems stuck on 100% charm for much of the story. If he uses abominable language, treats people poorly (which would be a vast understatement), and tries to pretend he's smarter than he actually is, and then you (as an audience member) react negatively to him, that's the entire point. Calvin Candie is the bad guy, and when he punishes a runaway slave by letting a pack of dogs rip him apart, you're not supposed to chuckle. Candie is a bad man, and not in the complimentary manner that term is often used. You are not supposed to like him. You might be able to argue that some of the things presented in this movie are overkill, but that's a matter of personal taste. It's enough, in the context of the film, that Dr. Schultz is playing along with Candie in order to achieve a larger goal, which requires a circuitous approach to the matter at hand. It's clear that there is some judgment being made by the characters in the story that all of this is distasteful and not okay.
My second point is that if you're going to set a story, any story, in any given setting, then white-washing that setting is worse than lying. If you want to be edgy and write a story set in a strip-club or something, all of the girls are not going to spend the entire film with their nipples covered. One of my primary concerns with "Lincoln" was the soft-pedaling of tobacco. "Django Unchained" is set in the south, before the American Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery. Tarantino is okay with writing this film with frank language, language that would have been used without a second thought in that place and that time. If you, as a viewer are not okay with that, then don't go see the movie. Understand that this is going to be an uncomfortable three hours, and it's better for you to stay at home than to ask filmmakers to bowdlerize material so that it's a lumpy, tasteless bowl of oatmeal for you to consume with no pesky flavors or aftertaste to worry about.
"Django Unchained" goes by fast, has memorable and spectacular scenes, and concludes excellently. I fully understand if this isn't your cup of tea, but you've got to understand that Quentin Tarantino has been making movies for a couple of decades now, and probably doesn't give a flying fuck if you like what he does or not. That's one of the things that makes his films so interesting; he's making movies for himself, primarily. If he's got a taste for genre trash, he's also got the ability to turn it into something that no one else can. "Django" is more evidence for that case.
4.5 / 5 - Theatre