Review: Django Unchained (2012)

DJANGO UNCHAINED
(12/25/12; Western/Thriller)
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson
SCR/DIR: Quentin Tarantino
MPAA: R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
2 hours 45 mins
(The Weinstein Company / Columbia)

The setup is simple: on a cold Texas night in 1858, bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates sullen slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from a chain gang and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Schultz is after the notorious Brittle brothers, and Django can identify them. Once the Brittle brothers are killed, Django will be freed. The two form a partnership, with Schultz showing Django the way things work out there.

Let’s just say the movie has more on it’s mind than that simple plot construct, as it dispatches with that story about a third of the way in. Django’s real intention is to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – also known as Hildie – from Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a particularly mean plantation owner who indulges in a sport called “mandingo fighting.” And yes, that is exactly what it sounds like: two muscle-bound fighting slaves in a bare-knuckle death match.

To accomplish this, Django and Schultz must insert themselves into Candie’s world under the guise of wanting to purchase one of his slaves. This plot makes Django Unchained Tarantino’s first official love story. It’s a credit to all involved that the scenes involving Foxx and Washington crackle with tension, especially when they have to pretend to not know each other.

It has long been known that Tarantino simply sees things in actors that others don’t. Every single Tarantino film has featured an actor the industry has moved past that is every bit as vital as they need to be. Here, the director casts Tom Wopat and Don Johnson to great effect, the latter sporting a white suit and beard that would make Colonel Sanders envious.

But chief among the scene-stealers is Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, the head slave who also runs Candie Land, the sprawling plantation that has been in Candie’s family for generations. Stephen knows the order of things, and his place in the world. He has probably never ventured off the property because if he did, he would be no different than any other slave. But as the manipulative third-generation manager of this house, the last thing he expects to see is a negro riding freely on a horse.

Steven is a brilliant creation, because while he is evil, he is simply a product of his environment. Once his worldview is rocked, he has to investigate, and the results are not pretty. Tarantino the writer doesn’t pass judgment against Stephen, nor feel sorry for him. It just is what it is.

Django Unchained is not a perfect film. It’s Tarantino’s longest movie, at almost 3 hours, and could frankly use some tightening up. The violent scuffle that ends the second act sure feels like the climax until you realize the movie has another half hour to go.

Purists will continue to take issue with Tarantino’s approach: his use of anachronistic pop music during montages, his penchant for long slow takes punctuated with the low rent flourishes of Grindhouse cinema, and his unflinching approach to uncomfortable language, complete with era-specific racial slurs.

But in the end, as with all of Tarantino’s work, there emerges a one-of-a-kind cinematic stew, that somehow manages to reconsider an unfortunate chapter in American history – and be luridly entertaining at the same time.

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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