Words can't describe how refreshing it is to walk into a movie theater and have no fucking clue what I'm about to see. Thanks to some cracklin' dialogue, excellent casting, inspired performances, sharp storytelling, unconventional musical choices and brilliant pacing, Django Unchained is the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse ride.
Jamie Foxx plays Django a slave who suddenly finds himself liberated by an immigrant German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz turns out to be a bounty hunter who's looking to track down the ruthless Brittle Brothers. With Django's help, Schultz locates the outlaws, takes them down and then collects the substantial price on their collective heads.
This temporary alliance proves to be highly lucrative and the duo enter into a formal partnership. When Schultz learns that Django has been forcibly separated from his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) he vows to do what he can to re-unite them. This leads to an elaborate scheme in which Django and Schultz are forced to ingratiate themselves to the flamboyant and obtuse slave broker Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What follows is a tense campaign of subterfuge in which Schultz and Django attempt to feign interest in the repugnant "sport" of Mandingo fighting. Under the guise of purchasing one of the top combatants, the two venture off to Calvin's extravagant plantation uncomfortably named "Candyland". The tension builds to nigh-intolerable levels when Candie betrays an increasingly cruel and psychotic streak and his devoted senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to question the intentions of his visitors.
Django Unchained wasn't shot digitally in 3-D and exhibited at forty-eight frame-per-second. It was shot on celluloid and is currently being displayed in movie theater all over the world in the traditional manner. For all of it's quaintly analog trappings, this film was ten times more immersive to me then Avatar or The fucking Hobbit. Why? Because the screenwriting is innovative, the dialogue is compelling, the performances are center stage and the film's artistry is undeniable.
Where to start? I suppose I can begin by cataloging the movie's compulsively watchable traits. Even though it clocks in at nearly three hours long my eyes were glued to the screen the entire time. Like all of Tarantino flicks, the plot doesn't unspool here based on market research or screenwriting by committee. Things happen organically in Django Unchained either because it springs logically from what we've seen prior or things happen completely from out of left field, just as real life is want to do from time to time.
It's not just the script's vignette-like plotting that keeps us on our toes. The dialogue, as you might imagine, is a refreshing reprieve for ears dulled by cliche. For example, here's a great exchange between Calvin Candie's associate Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher) and Schultz:
Dr. King Schultz: Anything else about Mr Candie I should know about before I meet him?
Leonide Moguy: Yes, he's a bit of a Francophile. Well, what civilized people aren't? And he prefers 'Monsieur Candie' to 'Mr Candie'.
Dr. King Schultz: [en Francais] Whatever he prefers.
Leonide Moguy: Oh, he doesn't speak French! Don't speak French to him, it'll embarrass him.
Dialogue like this is great for two reasons: first off it's funny as all get-out. But more importantly, it gives you some insight into DiCaprio's character even before he's had a single second of screen time.
Naturally, with all of this rich material to work with, the cast runs riot. Keeping his cards close to his chest, Jamie Foxx plays Django with a dangerous, simmering, barely-contained rage that threatens to explode at any moment and unravel their plans. Witness his cool delivery in this tense scene with the gleefully reprehensible Candie:
Calvin Candie: I'm curious, what makes you such a Mandingo expert?
Django: I'm curious what makes you so curious.
Later Django is tortured by Candie's yahoo lieutenant Billy Crash (Walter Goggins) in a scene that evokes shades of Pulp Fiction and/or Reservoir Dogs. When our hero finally gets a chance to exact his revenge, I couldn't help but share Foxx's on-screen catharsis when the two finally meet again for the last time.
Christoph Waltz, so great as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, gets even more opportunities to shine here. On paper, Schultz is a pretty interesting dude, but in Waltz's capable hands the character really comes alive. With typical aplomb he manages to wring a wealth of subtleties and intriguing deliveries out of the dialogue thereby elevating the material into something transcendent. Once again, we're talking Oscar-worthy here.
Although folks like to give Leonardo DiCaprio a blast of shit for being one-dimensional I'm pleased to report that Django Unchained represents the best performance of his adult career. Armed with a subtle makeup job, flamboyant costume and a convincing accent, the nicely-seasoned DiCaprio finally divorces himself from the concept that good acting consists merely of furrowing your brow and yelling a lot. Even though DiCaprio may not posses the depth required to vanish completely into a role, he does a tremendous job here selling Candie as a real, three-dimensional prig with genuinely loathsome proclivities. The scene in which he confronts Django and Schultz during dinner is positively nerve-jangling.
I've always wanted to punch George Lucas right in the neck waddle for wasting Samuel L. Jackson in those deplorable Star Wars prequels, but never more so then after watching Django Unchained. People don't think of Jackson as a character actor, but given a meaty role and some stellar makeup, he's obviously capable of a transformative performance. Indeed the Quisling-like role of Stephen is quite a departure from anything he's done before and Jackson is more then up for the challenge: segueing easily from doddering clown to persistently inquisitive to downright terrifying.
Kerry Washington is alternately fierce, sweet and sympathetic as Broomhilda but she's strangely under-utilized for a female in a Quentin Tarantino production. She functions mainly as a MacGuffin to drive the plot and until Django and Schultz reach Candyland, she's only seen in strife-ridden flashbacks or as a wraith. Once she's introduced to the story proper, however, Washington does an excellent job conveying shock and bliss over her reunion with Django and then fear and trepidation as they attempt to extricate her from danger. This leads to a scene with DiCaprio which is one of the most startling and memorable of the entire film.
The movie is also rife with a veritable "who's who" of bit players and fun cameos. In addition to the aforementioned Walter Goggins, we also get a nearly unrecognizable Lee Horsley as Sheriff Gus, former Duke Boy Tom Wopat as U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum, deck-shoe-model-turned-cock-of-the-walk Don Johnson as Spencer 'Big Daddy' Bennett and Twin Peaks alum Russ Tamblyn as Son of a Gunfighter and his real-life daughter Amber as the Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter (natch!). John Jarratt, Michael Parks and even Tarantino himself get in on the action as the guileless staff of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. Finally, comedian Jonah Hill gets plenty of mileage out of his appearance as a persnickety proto-Klan member.
Tarantino also keeps surprising us with some consistently unique musical choices. Whereas some of the tunes selected for Inglorious Basterds were jarringly contemporary ("Cat People"? Really?), the Django Unchained soundtrack hangs together a lot better. From the Elvis-tinged main theme and spaghetti-flavored suites designed by Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov to contemporary songs by Jim Croce ("I Got A Name") and a punishing rap track by Rick Ross ("100 Black Coffins"), every tune feels thematically appropriate and conducive to the mood.
But perhaps the most effective technique in Tarantino's bag of tricks is his lively camerawork. With expert assistance from Cinematographer Robert Richardson, the visual verve and panache of the film humiliates most of the competition being cranked out nowadays. Tarantino uses a veritable arsenal of time-honored techniques including grandiose panoramas, intimate close-ups, whip pans, slo-mo, hyperactive zooms and languidly drifting dolly shots. It all adds up to a hypnotically compulsive film to watch. Even if you're not consciously aware of the methods by which Tanantino is playing you like a cheap violin, it's certainly no less effective. In the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett: "you may not have noticed it, but your brain did."
To play devil's advocate for a moment, I know that some people believe that the film's black humor and cartoonish violence has a tendency to undermine the more serious subject matter. As someone who's actually watched the film, I know that whenever slavery is depicted in Django Unchained it's in the most repugnant manner imaginable. Slaves are shown bound in manacles, entombed in hot boxes, whipped for disobedience or menaced by dogs whenever they try to escape. The tone of these scenes is always respectful and sober. If anything, the film's humor springs naturally from the ludicrous concept that one human being can claim ownership over another. Slaver owners here are depicted as comedically addle-brained and laughably backward.
Although Django Unchained doesn't claim to be a scholarly examination of slavery, it does serve up some rarely-depicted insights into that ethically bankrupt era. Perhaps the most fascinating and insidious angle is the divisive social stratification that developed amongst slaves. House servitude was often held up as an elite duty which gave slaves an opportunity to look down upon menial laborers as troublemakers. This, in turn, resulted in working slaves regarding senior house servants as collaborators. The film even broaches the particularly distasteful subjects of Mandingo fighting, "comfort girls" and black slave masters.
Naturally, a vocal cabal of slack-jawed troglodytes are taking Django Unchained as another opportunity to rake Tarantino over the coals for the film's graphic depiction of violence. Frankly, I'm glad that he's throwing these lame and tired accusations back into the media's face. In Django Unchained the nasty things inflicted on the protagonists are suitably harrowing and the deserving villains are dispatched with stylish and darkly humorous excess. It amazes me that people are still wringing their hands over the fictional depiction of a redneck getting shot in the knutz when drone attacks are constantly killing scores of very real people all the time.
In a less existential complaint, some critics also posit that the film has a chance to end at a satisfying point but chooses to overstay its welcome. I heartily disagree. If you inventory all of the awesome things that happen after that point, I can't fathom why someone would gripe about having more of a good thing. Saying that there's too much Django Unchained to enjoy is like saying that there's too much bacon in the world.
In fact, I'll even go so far as to declare that this is one of Tarantino's most even-keeled efforts to date. If you're weary of the formulaic, inert drivel that's been dropping from the Hollywood poop-chute lately, Django Unchained is a great way to break free from the mundane.