#1: Django: Unchained
It’s truly a sight to see when a director and actor compliment each other’s strengths so well, that it seems like they are working on a whole other level than everyone else in the industry. Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune, Scorsese had Robert De Niro, and John Ford had John Wayne. Nowadays, it looks like Quentin Tarantino has found his own partner in crime in Christoph Waltz.
There’s no denying that Tarantino has a way with the English language. He writes dialogue that is so eloquent and so well written, that it can sound almost like poetry. In Waltz’s hands, it’s damn near Shakespearean. The dialogue he has written for Waltz across two Oscar-winning roles is some of the best writing Tarantino has ever churned out, which one of many reasons why Django: Unchained is my top film of 2012.
The idea of a spaghetti western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino sounds a lot like something I would have dreamed up. I love the genre and Tarantino has rarely disappointed me. Even Death Proof, arguably the least of his films, manages to leave the viewer with something; namely a fantastic car chase. So when he had announced the project, and especially when the script was leaked online, I knew I was probably going to enjoy the hell out of the film. I was not disappointed.
Django: Unchained is the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave in Pre-Civil War America who is set free by Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter, in exchange for information regarding the men he is currently hunting. The men happen to have worked at the plantation where Django had been enslaved, so naturally, he’s all too happy to help out Schultz. They find the men, the Brittle Brothers, fairly quickly in the film’s runtime, so once the brothers are taken care of, they set out to find Django’s wife Broomhilda.
The search for Broomhilda leads them to Candieland, plantation owned by Calvin Candie, played without inhibition by Leonardo DiCaprio. Calvin seems to be a child at the reigns of a great empire. He seems too naïve, too green to be much of a real businessman, which makes DiCaprio, who perpetually looks seventeen, perfect for the role. He fits the role of 19th Century trust fund kid perfectly, and is able to convincingly make the turn to sociopath when he feels like he’s been made a fool of.
Candie is, at his core, petulant. Without giving too much away, when he finds out that he had been had, and that Django and Dr. Schultz are not who they claim to be, he escalates things to a point a sensible person would never let it get to. Even when he finally won, and got more than he imagined, he still needs to get the last word on Schultz; a desire that is not only petty, it proves to be his own downfall.
This is one of the finest roles I’ve seen DiCaprio in and it is mindboggling how he can’t seem to get himself an Oscar. At the very least, he should’ve gotten a nomination for this role. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen him in and he does every single one of Tarantino’s words justice.
I already spent some words talking about the great performance by Christoph Waltz, but any words I write cannot do the justice that is his performance. The two-time Oscar winner is enigmatic on screen. His presence is that of a true star. Charming, eloquent, and kinetic, he is the perfect mouthpiece for Quentin’s words. Take for example his work in Inglourious Basterds. It would have been able to have just made Colonel Hans Landa a character that you despised; to Waltz’ credit he definitely does, but it is also a character that you find yourself being charmed by, and if it wasn’t for the fact that his one job in life was to hunt down Jewish refugees all over Europe, you could almost say he was likable. In Django, we actually get the opportunity to like him and not feel bad about it, and he doesn’t let us down. Schultz is another fine performance as he walks right into the lions’ den of Candieland and tries to pull one of the all-time schemes.
In the title role, Jamie Foxx is perfectly capable as the slave-turned-bounty hunter out to save his love. The role doesn’t require too much heavy lifting, but Foxx has enough stage presence to pull off the role of the 1 in 10,000 man. He plays it cool until the very end, but Django is a man of few words, so by that nature, in a film where Waltz, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson chew the scenery, Foxx takes a more passive role through two-thirds of the film. He really shines, however, in the final act, which lets his character have his redemption.
Speaking of the final act, my one very minor gripe with the film is that it doesn’t end where it feels like it should. The last twenty minutes or so feels unnecessary if only because it feels like everything could have been wrapped up just prior. It’s a pretty small problem, though; the last scene is so rewarding to watch that I’ll forgive the fact that we are forced to watch Quentin labor through a bad Australian accent because of it.
A lot is made of the excessive violence and the frequent use of the n-word in the film. I understand how this may offend some, but in all honesty, it plays to the unrelenting nature of the film. Django is not meant to be a history lesson; it is a comic book movie set in a historical backdrop. The blood splatter is bigger, the violence is louder, and the villains are evil. I don’t know how often the n-word or any racial slur was used back before the Civil War, but I assume the words were bandied around a bit; especially during negotiations of a slave. The word in the film is used vigorously, and violently against Django. Those who use it are not being glorified, however. In fact, most come off as foolish. No scene exemplifies the foolishness than the scene of the lynch mob. Somehow, Tarantino manages to mine comedy gold out of a scene involving, while not officially the KKK, a group of people with similar intentions. It’s probably the funniest scene Tarantino has ever written and it’s the racists who wind up being at the butt of the joke.
The film is not for everyone. Those weak in the stomach should probably steer clear and those that can’t be confronted with other people’s racism will squirm in their seat. But for Tarantino fanboys and fans of the genre should find this a great addition to both the director’s filmography and the western canon.