Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Django Unchained

Grade: 94 (A)

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained will likely go down as the writer-director’s most controversial film, which is saying something considering the consistently high levels of violence, profanity, and disregard for “good taste” that flow through his films. A man whose career is dedicated to blurring the lines between trash favorites and high art, Tarantino strikes again with a film that takes America’s darkest chapter, slavery, and filters it through the western and exploitation genres as only he could do. The film’s handling of the subject of slavery has already brought condemnations of insensitivity. They’re way off the mark: Tarantino’s gifts as a filmmaker and an entertainer remain nigh-unparalleled, and Django Unchained is easily most fun movie to hit the big screen in 2012.

Django (Jamie Foxx), has spent his life in slavery, but when German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates him, he enters in an agreement: help Schultz track down a trio of outlaws, and he’ll give him his freedom. Django turns out to be a natural at the bounty hunting business, and the two partner up to earn enough money to buy Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), her freedom. But Django and Schultz have their work cut out for them, as Broomhilda’s owner is the powerful Francophile cotton plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and he doesn’t plant to give her up easily. The duo also has another foe in Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s loyal house-slave.

Tarantino being Tarantino, he populates the film with fun supporting turns from former big stars (Don Johnson, Bruce Dern) and talented character actors (Walton Goggins, James Russo, James Remar). He also provides juicy roles for the main cast, with the taciturn Foxx and the delightfully verbose Waltz complimenting each other perfectly. Foxx does his best work perhaps ever as a man whose every move has to be perfectly measured, lest he give himself away and be killed (a Tarantino type that fits in perfectly with Inglourious Basterds’ Shoshanna and Reservoir Dogs’s Mr. Orange). Waltz, meanwhile, serves as one of the film’s best in-jokes- Schultz is a perfect inverse to his Oscar-winning role in Inglourious Basterds, here a noble (if murderous) hero rather than a disarmingly charming villain.

That’s where DiCaprio comes in, giving his best performance since The Departed as a man whose emphasis on class and good taste serves as a perverted, pretentious version of Waltz’ own good-humor, never totally hiding the monster underneath. Jackson is nearly as strong is perhaps the film’s trickiest role. Stephen enters looking and acting like a broad parody of an Uncle Tom stereotype only to reveal a much more clever and sinister character underneath- someone who will go to deplorable ends to hold onto the power he has.

Django Unchained plays as a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, another gripping revenge story on history’s greatest monsters. Django doesn’t quite have the psychological or thematic complexity of the earlier film, but it makes up for it with the rawest, most emotionally powerful material Tarantino has delivered since Kill Bill. This is Tarantino’s most violent film. It shares his usual use of comic or exciting action violence, but make no mistake, he’s not messing around when it comes to the material dealing with slavery, which is as brutal, visceral, and appropriately repellent as it needs to be. Tarantino doesn’t fall into the pit of stolid seriousness that afflicts most portrayals of slavery, but rather uses the realistic violence against black slaves to drum up our fury and support Django’s quest for vengeance. Is this view of revenge problematic? Perhaps. But as with all exploitation, Blaxploitation, or western films, these problems fall to the wayside when Tarantino works his magic. 

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1 comment:

  1. Terrific review. My favorite film of 2012 so far. "Safety Not Guaranteed" comes in second.