It’s going to be quite difficult for me to be objective in this review, so I think I’m just going to give up all pretense right here at the start and tell you the god’s honest truth. I absolutely loved this movie. I’ve watched it twice already in fact, and have watched certain scenes over and over again already just due to how much I enjoyed them the first time around. To be honest, I’m a bit hit and miss on some of Quentin Tarintino’s films. Most often I find myself admiring his work a bit more than I actually enjoy it (although I usually do enjoy them somewhat at least) such as with ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’. The two major exceptions to that rule thus far have been ‘Pulp Fiction’ and now this movie, ‘Django Unchained’. Where to even begin? For starters the movie is shot and produced absolutely beautifully, which probably isn’t that big of a surprise, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. The cinematography and all that jazz is just about as perfect as you could hope for in a film like this. I’m a real sucker for classic old western scenes of frontier men on horses riding through the vast open plains, or up on the snow covered mountains, and this movie has all that and then some. So just basically disregarding the actual movie for a second, and speaking purely aesthetically, ‘Django Unchained’ is if nothing else, a magnificent visual achievement.
Of course it’s not all sunsets and dandy lions though. This movie is also brutally, brutally violent. Its violence is broken up into two distinct kinds though. First you have the fun spaghetti western violence mixed in with the classic Tarintino blood splattering violence that is as fun to watch as ever, if you’re into that kind of thing. To be sure, the gunfights that Django participates in this movie are not of the “gritty realistic” type of gunfights you see in some modern movies. Instead they are an homage to the stuff you would see in a Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah flick, where one man can outgun twenty others based on skill and badassery alone, and a bullet, if rightly aimed I presume, can send a man flying twenty feet backwards on contact.
But then there’s also the very dark and disturbing kind of violence concerning how black slaves were actually treated in the pre-civil war south. Make no mistake this movie is not for the faint of heart. There are scenes of black men being forced to fight to the death, women being brutally whipped, and a runaway slave being attacked by vicious dogs. Yes it is complete ‘overkill’ in that department, but to play devil’s advocate here for a second, it is that willingness to go so overboard that gives this movie its teeth. If it had gone softer on those scenes it would have watered down and ruined the rest of it, in my opinion. In a way the two types of violence I described work off of one another perfectly. The horrible and all too realistic atrocities against the slaves (not that there exists any proof that slaves were ever forced to fight to the death in real life, but for sure the lives of these poor souls were absolute hell) sets up the violence to follow and is what makes it so satisfying when it happens to the people that have it coming to them. I’ll admit I’m also a sucker for a good revenge/shoot em’ up movie, but the really, really good ones are few and far between. It’s one thing to sit and watch bullets fly and see nameless bad guys get mowed down, but when the director actually gives you an a real and intense emotional investment in that violence that doesn’t feel forced or unearned, that’s when you’ve crossed over into true classic territory.
Spike Lee said in his statement boycotting this movie “slavery was not a spaghetti western”…. Well no, Mr. Lee it certainly was not, however ‘Django Unchained’ is, and it’s an extremely good and enthralling one at that. That being said I can understand his cause for concern here (although not the extent to which he carries it) in a way. There’s never really been a movie that dealt with slavery like this one does. A lot of movies have attempted to show the horrors of slavery within the context of a serious historical drama, and some have done admirable jobs, but this movie, as unusual as it sounds uses the genre of a fun and campy spaghetti western as the perfect platform to deal with those same all too realistic horrors and injustices in an equally if not more gripping manner. Perhaps it is because you don’t expect that from this type of movie that makes it so effective on such a visceral level. I really cannot say. However, I can say there were several scenes in this picture that left me truly unsettled and very uncomfortable, which no doubt was the intent. But, and this is what elevates the movie beyond simple exploitation, there were far more scenes in this movie that I found to be incredibly entertaining as well as very cathartic, and on top of that, just damn good fun. I can see certain people being overwhelmed both by the violence and the language in this film, but I will again argue that both are justifiably used here.
Yes, the N-word is used here quite frequently, (over one hundred times to be specific) just as it would have been (and still is in some places) by very racist people in a very racist place and during a very racist time in our nation’s history. To white wash (pardon the pun) that out would have been to do an insulting injustice to the reality of what it was like for those people who lived through those horrors, and endured that mockery. But those kinds of protests are to be expected. Those who instinctively want political correctness at all costs will always be doing battle with those who wish to live in a world where free speech can still be allowed to be poignant and yes sometimes very provocative and offensive as well. Admittedly, some will misuse it for sheer shock value, but I’m far more willing to live with that than I am willing to live in a world where every word out of a screenwriter’s pen has to be approved by those who wish to make the world more sterile and sanitary for their corporate buddies whose main concern is raking in more advertising revenue for themselves. But now, I am getting way off topic here aren’t I? Let’s get on to the actual movie, shall we?
The story of this film is as follows. The year is 1858, two years before the Civil War we are informed, and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) is a slave now being marched through countless miles of rugged terrain in the heart of the Deep South. He’s in a group with half a dozen other slaves, all shackled together and pushed on by a pair of brutish slave traders. In the middle of the night his party is met in the woods by a well spoken German man driving a foreboding looking wagon (complete with a giant squeeking tooth swinging on top of it) lit with a lantern hanging on the end of it like something out of Sleepy Hollow. The man, who claims to be a dentist, says that he wishes to complete a transaction with Django’s two perplexed owners. After conferring with Django and the other slaves, and generally confusing the hell out of the two white men whose reading comprehension level is far below that of the supposed Dentist, he finally exceeds their limit for “fancy pants” talkery and has to disperse of them with his pistol, purely in self defense of course. That man’s name is Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), and his actual profession is that of a bounty hunter. He has interest in Django because he happens to be tracking three brothers who once worked on a plantation that young Django was enslaved at. He’s never seen those men, but Django has. After he rescues Django in a wonderfully funny and violent scene the two of them form a makeshift partnership as Django becomes an apprentice of sorts to Dr. Shultz. “You mean I can kill white people and get paid for it?” asks an astonished Jamie Foxx. Shultz is a rare man for his time, well dressed and eloquent in the way a Quentin Tarintino character often is, even if said character has no real business being so eloquent, which is not the case here. Shultz abhors slavery but has no trouble killing people he’s never met for bounty money, so indeed he’s an interesting and complex character from the start, but an easily likable one nonetheless.
Django and Shultz make a terrific pair, as do Foxx and Waltz here. The chemistry just comes off so effortless between them. The two of them make their across the south killing bad guys and collecting reward money while getting into a couple tight spots here and there. We learn that Django is married to another slave named Broomhilda Von Shaft (Quentin is just messing with us at this point with names like this..) who was raised by German immigrants and was taught to speak German so that her owners would have someone they could converse with in their native tongue, and so that this movie could have a scene with her and Christoph Waltz’s character speaking German together, of course. When Dr. Shultz learns of this naturally, he is very intrigued and eager to meet her and subsequently agrees, after a winter’s worth of bounties have been collected, to help young Django find and rescue his beloved wife. Eventually they learn that Broomhilda is being enslaved on a famous plantation in Mississippi known as Candyland, operated by a debonair young Francophile (but one who cannot speak French we learn) named Calvin Candy and his small army of associates and assorted riff raff. The plan then is for Django and Dr. Shultz to masquerade as ‘Mandingo’ experts (people who trade in fighting slaves) to gain access to Candyland where they hope to also find and purchase Django’s wife, Broomhilda. That’s the basic outline anyway; to spoil anything else would simply be, uncivilized.
The two things that make this movie so much fun for me is first, and naturally, the great dialogue always present in a Quentin Tarintino movie, and secondly the great actors who make that dialogue come alive. Christoph Waltz is Tarintino’s latest in a long line of terrific finds when it comes to actors. He was brilliant in ‘Inglorious Basterds ‘and he is brilliant here. He is kind of like a German John Malkovich in a way. He has a way of making every single word that comes out of his mouth completely captivating, and to listen to him speak this dialogue is almost pure poetry. Jamie Foxx is also a natural at playing a western badass here, and although this will probably be the only film he will do so, he could have success for another decade or so if this were to turn into a trilogy of some kind. After watching this film I cannot imagine the role going to anyone else. He maintains the necessary sympathy for this character and keeps Django grounded even when he is called upon to perform feats that rival that of a superhero hopped up on ten different kinds of methamphetamines. Django’s wife Broomhilda is played by Kerry Washington, and she does a good job of basically being beautiful and vulnerable as a damsel in distress. If I have one criticism of this fine movie it is that the role of Broomhilda could have stood to have been fleshed out some more, but with a running time at two hours and forty-five minutes already I can understand that some cuts had to be made, which is why I cannot wait to pick up the DVD of this film when it is released to see the already announced director’s cut with all the scenes that didn’t make the theatrical release.
Leonardo Decaprio simply has too much fun playing the head villain here. His Calvin Candy character is like a young petulant emperor of his estate in the vein of Nero or Caligula, and he plays him as a sophisticated (in form anyway) southern Devil with a capital D. Candy is a man born into wealth, who has grown bored with his position, so he fills his time at dinner parties and arranging his slaves to fight to the death for his after dinner amusement. To say his performance is over the top would be understating the matter considerably. Then you have the head house slave of Candyland, Stephen, played by Tarintino regular Samuel L. Jackson. This is one of Jackson’s finest roles in many years and he knocks the performance out of the park. Stephen is not just a slave, but a real authority figure in Candyland. He probably has been with Calvin since he was a child and helped raise him, and now, while in public he gives his master the proper respect and plays the role of a simple minded negro to keep up appearances, in private it is a different story entirely. He is sort of the Dick Cheney to Calvin Candy’s George W Bush, as far as running the plantation goes. There are several other minor characters here played by famous actors in cameo roles. You get Don Johnson and Bruce Dern as plantation owners, while Jonah Hill and Walton Goggins appear as henchmen essentially. Quentin Tarintino himself even pops up in a small role here, along with plenty of others that aren’t coming to mind right now.
And I didn’t even get to mention the music here! My goodness… Everything from classic western scores, to Jim Croce, to John Legend, to gangster rap (I know, I know, but it works I swear) is featured in this movie, and it all adds to the overall entertainment value. It’s a truly wild mash-up, and the kind that only Quentin Tarintino could possibly have the cahones’ to pull off this successfully.
Here’s my final verdict on this movie. If you’re easily offended by blood, violence, and gore, this movie probably isn’t best suited for you. Likewise if strong language bothers you, then again, you will probably want to avoid this upon first glance. But, even if that is the case, if there ever was one movie you were going to make an exception for this would be the one. Django Unchained delivers on so many levels I’m still not sure I’ve even been able to process all of them. This is a movie I will be getting and re-watching many, many times over the rest of my life I’m sure. It is really just a flat out classic piece of work that I truly believe will stand the test of time (but of course we will have to wait and see on that one). It’s the most fun, and flat out best “western” movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. It delivers tremendously as a great love story, buddy movie, action flick, and of course a classic tale of revenge and redemption. This is without question Quentin Tarintino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, and I cannot rate or recommend it highly enough. I’d say it was also easily the best movie of 2012, certainly the most entertaining one I saw anyway, and you should make it a priority to seek this one out for future viewing. That concludes my thoughts on the matter. Hopefully you will give it a chance and enjoy it at least half as much as I did. That’s all for now, so until next time, I simply say thanks for reading.
Django Unchained gets a four out of five: GREAT.