Django Unchained - Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio - Rated R
Quentin Tarantino has become a somewhat controversial figure in cinema. There are the Tarantino devotees, who have been on board since they first saw Reservoir Dogs and enjoy every single thing he does (I can nearly be classified as part of this group). Then there are the people that have been less than impressed with everything he has done since Pulp Fiction. I feel that he has become an internet target in that it’s cool to hate him since so many film nerds love everything he does. To be fair, he set himself up for this as his films have turned into a series of references to other, much more obscure films. What is the difference between copying and paying homage? I believe it comes down to opinion: if you enjoy his films, then Tarantino is paying homage; if you dislike the films, he’s stealing. This has been the issue with Tarantino for some time, but he opened up a new debate with his last film, Inglourious Basterds: is it okay to alter history and find humor within very serious situations? Once again, if you’re with the film, then yes, it’s totally okay. Now with Django Unchained, a cartoonishly violent, surprisingly funny film about slavery, Tarantino asks this question of the audience again, and my answer is an emphatic “yes.”
I love most of Tarantino’s work (Death Proof just didn’t work for me), but I rarely take it seriously. I think the filmmaker sets out to simply entertain people, which means he must do whatever he thinks is best to accomplish that. If that’s constantly using cheesy zooms taken from old kung fu movies, or spraying goofy amounts of blood from bullet wounds, or having the precursor to the Klan have a complaint session about holes in bags, then so be it. If it works, it works. This is why there can be laughter during a movie about slavery. Tarantino isn’t pretending to give a history lesson (this is the guy who decided to kill off Hitler in a movie theater, after all). He is trying to get you to enjoy yourself, and I enjoyed myself immensely throughout Django.
Entertainment as a goal doesn’t excuse a film from controversy, however. Some will be, and are, angry about the film. Complaints range from taking the slavery issue lightly at all to the many uses of the “N-word” throughout the film. I understand how all of this can be offensive, but I suppose I’m not easily offended. But be forewarned: this is certainly not a film for everyone. And even if some of the violence is portrayed as humorous, there are still very gruesome and brutal moments that will sicken people.
If you can get past all of the possibly offensive material, though, you will witness one of the best films of the year. The story of the lengthy film is relatively simple. Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) because he needs his help tracking down some slavers. After they’re done, Schultz agrees to help Django find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the delightfully evil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
The film ends up being quite lengthy because Tarantino has finally made his spaghetti western, and he couldn’t help but fill it with references. I won’t pretend to share Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, but I did enjoy all of the little touches that I picked up here and there. It just feels good to watch the movie with a crowd and notice Franco Nero (the original Django from the 1966 film) and know that I am one of the only people that caught it.
That’s not to say that references alone make this film enjoyable. It’s loaded with Tarantino weirdness. From the hilarious and at times self-aware dialogue to the fact that Schultz drives around a carriage with a giant tooth on top of it; there is plenty here for the uninitiated viewer. Tarantino has struck a great balance of honest storytelling and his trademark weirdness. I like watching his films because I know that anything might happen, even if the story takes place in a historical setting.
Tarantino doesn’t get too crazy with anachronisms, except perhaps with the music. Modern day music, along with some classic songs, is used throughout the film. It might take some people out of the film, but I found the songs perfectly suitable for each scene. Tarantino seems to always find the ideal music for each of his films.
Django is not simply a stylishly violent film with a good soundtrack, though. Tarantino’s scripts have long been ripe material for actors. Jamie Foxx is great as Django, and his transition from frightened slave to empowered bounty hunter is a realistic one. Unfortunately for him, the supporting roles of the film are much more interesting than the title character. Christoph Waltz is gaining attention yet again for his supporting role (he won an Oscar for Basterds) as Schultz. It’s a fun performance, and he makes every line of dialogue lively. Samuel L. Jackson gives his best performance in years as the absolutely evil slave Stephen. His performance is impressive, and hilarious, because he gets to play up the stereotype of the helpful slave, but also gets to show the true ruthlessness of his character. Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s something inherently interesting about a character that you’re supposed to hate, and DiCaprio fully embraces that. People were up in arms when he wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award, but it’s a packed category this year. Waltz getting the nomination makes sense, but I’m surprised more people are not singing Jackson’s praises. I felt that his lack of a nomination was a bigger snub than DiCaprio. DiCaprio winning an Oscar is a question of when. Who knows when Jackson will take on another prestige role like this?
Django Unchained is the total package for me. It has great action, fitting music, a historical setting, spaghetti western influences, comedy, Tarantino’s style, and fun performances. Honestly, the only thing keeping this movie from being my favorite of the year is Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. If not for that great performance, Django Unchained would be the best film of the year, in my opinion. Try not to be offended and enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s latest piece of entertainment.