Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

Written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Rated: R
Running Time: 165 minutes

Django Freeman: Jamie Foxx
Dr. King Schultz: Christoph Waltz
Calvin Candie: Leonardo DiCaprio
Broomhilda: Kerry Washington
Stephen: Samuel L. Jackson

Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained ("the D is silent"), is set in the South, two years before the start of the Civil War. Dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, is on the trail of a band of 3 brothers. The only problem is that he doesn't know what they look like. But there is one person who can help him: a slave by the name of Django. In the opening scene, Dr. King Schultz finds Django and several other slaves being led by two men on horseback. After a mildly comical and violent scene, King Schultz frees Django from his chains and enlists him in his search for the brothers. During a fireside chat, Django tells King Schultz that his wife, Broomhilda, was sent to a different plantation as punishment for trying to run away. Both Django and Broomhilda are branded with the letter "r" on their cheeks. Coincidentally, Broomhilda knows how to speak German. This intrigues King Schultz, a German, so he makes a deal with Django. If Django helps him with the bounty hunting through the winter, King Schultz will help him find Broomhilda and they will both be free. Thus begins one of the most violent movies I've ever seen, and that includes the other Tarantino movies.

The genesis for this movie is Tarantino's love of the spaghetti western. I've listened to many interviews with him over the years, and have always been impressed with his extensive knowledge of film. It's one thing to be a director, but to also be a lifelong lover of films that dates back to your childhood is quite another. Like him or not, you have to give the man his due. He loves the movies. All kinds of movies. But he holds a special place in his heart for the spaghetti western. Made popular in the 1960's, these westerns were dubbed "Spaghetti Westerns" because most of them were made in Italy. One of the most influential of these films was Sergio Corbucci's "Django", released in 1966 and starring Franco Nero. An interesting bit of trivia is that this film was so violent that it was banned in England. In the original film Django wasn't a slave from the South. So "Django Unchained" isn't a remake or a sequel, although Nero makes a cameo appearance.

I've given a lot of thought to this review, and I think the best way to tackle it is by breaking it up into sections. First, I'd like to start with the performances. Jamie Foxx is perfect as Django. We see him start out as a confused, uneducated slave who slowly, with the help of King Schultz, become a strong, savvy bounty hunter. His performance is understated with so much being said without saying a word. And he looks like he was born to ride a horse. His posture is perfect and he looks like he's ridden every day of his life. There is a scene in which he rides a horse bareback which is no easy feat.

Christoph Waltz is delightful as King Schultz. When he appears on the screen, he is riding in a horse-drawn cart with a wobbly tooth on the top. According to an interview on Fresh Air, Waltz is in the cart because he broke his pelvis during the second day of training with the horses. He does eventually end up on horseback later in the film. Just as he did in Inglorious Basterds, he dominates the screen with his presence. He keeps you guessing about King Schultz: how did this German end up in the South as a bounty hunter? Is he a good guy? His character is in stark contrast to the other white people in the film. He doesn't treat black people any differently than he treats white people. The only distinction seems to be whether or not they are bad guys or good guys. It doesn't matter what color their skin is.

That is a different case altogether with Calvin Candie, the effete owner of the 4th largest plantation in Mississippi known as Candieland. The name belies the true nature of this plantation, famous among slaves for the cruelty unleashed on its residents. Presiding over all of this is Candie with his widowed sister and his house slave Stephen. Candie demands to be called "Monsieur" and dresses his house slaves in a decidedly french manner. However, the irony is that Candie doesn't speak French himself despite being an avid francophile. Candie is played with simmering intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio. Known for making interesting choices in roles, DiCaprio continues to surprise with his depiction of a sadistic slave owner. He is at once charming and vile. In one of the most intense scenes in the movie, DiCaprio explains why he thinks that black people are so docile and do not fight back. He considers himself an expert in phrenology, the study of the association between a person's character and the morphology of the skull. For all of his prejudices and bigotry, you can see in this scene that his belief in the inferiority of black people goes a lot deeper than just simple southern racism. This is the kind of hate that is dangerous. This is the kind of hate that leads to genocide.

Samuel L. Jackson is nearly unrecognizable as Stephen, the house slave. He is able to get away with infractions and familiarities with Candie that the other slaves cannot, even taking on a sort of fatherly role at one point. Some of the lighter moments in the film are when Stephen is on the screen, but there is a dark, sinister side to him as well.

Kerry Washington is stirring in her portrayal of Broomhilda. It is through her character that we are able to experience some of the atrocities of the slave trade. When she is whipped, we can almost feel her pain. The camera is trained on her face and not on her back. She is brave and strong, but they are working hard to break her spirit. At the end of the film, she is a very different person than the beautiful young girl at the start of the film.

Now that I have discussed some of the performances, I would like to address the issue of Quentin Tarantino. He is the only real problem with the film, and I'm not talking about the absurd few moments where he plays an Australian cowboy. The actors do as much as they can with what they are given, but this film is all over the place. Tarantino cannot seem to decide what he wants this film to be: comedy, camp, western, slave drama, revisionist history? Who knows. It's all of those things and none of them at the same time. I suppose I don't understand why he has to use such retro and antiquated camera shots, music, and even the font for the credits. Those old spaghetti westerns looked the way they did because that was the best technology for the time. But a longing for those old films doesn't mean you can't try to improve on them. There were strange moments when he would do an extremely fast close-up of someone that looked amateurish to me. Another time, someone was shot with a rifle and literally flew backward out of the room. It reminded me of another Tarantino film, "From Dusk to Dawn". This may well be the most stylized of all of his films, but what style was he going for? Even the phenomenal performances in this film cannot be saved from poor direction and yes, even the writing.

As for the violence, why does it have to be so graphic? A lot of people get shot in this film, but do they have to literally explode into parts to do it? Does there have to be a bucket of blood spraying in the air every single time? It was definitely overkill. Pun intended.

My verdict on "Django Unchained" is to skip it. Especially if you are a Tarantino fan and liked "Pulp Fiction" or "Inglorious Basterds". I realize that I may be in the minority on this. A lot of the water cooler talk on the film has been pretty good. I make it a point not to read other reviews before I've written my own, so I really don't know the consensus yet. But I will say this: for such a terrible film, I sure did give it a lot of thought. I probably spent more time preparing for this review than any other. I suppose that might be due to my appreciation for the performances in the film and for the body of work of Tarantino. But I left the theater feeling bludgeoned. My head literally hurt for days. In this case, the whole is definitely the sum of its parts.

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