Django Unchained – 2012
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, James Remar, Michael Parks, Dennis Christopher
There is a scene that resonates deeply. On the way into Candyland, Jamie Foxx’s freed slave, Django, rides along a group of men in chains. He notices one of the slaves in the line is looking at him with a certain derision. Django, who is working the long game, decides to make an example of him. Things almost come to a head. The look never leaves the slave’s eyes. Later, when both of them are in a compromised position, Django plays 3 men for fools and walks away. The look in the young man’s eyes changes, ever so slightly, to admiration. To this reviewer, this is the point of Django Unchained.
Much has been made of the decision to use the “N” word liberally throughout the film. As if there was another word that had been used to describe slaves. Then there was a similar surge of dissension about the lead character’s delight in shooting “white men.” The feigned shock and outrage has done nothing to hinder the box office. What we are left with is a good film, doing well at the box office. Let’s drop the theatrics and call it what it is: entertainment based on righting a historical wrong.
Tarantino writes everything with a mixture of homage, irreverence and true tension. When it comes to the latter, I am not sure that anyone outside of Scorsese handles a terse situation with such prolonged pressure as well as Tarantino. The dinner table scene with Candie, Django and Dr. King is almost as good as the myriad of classic scenes involving Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Then there is a mixture of tension and irreverence with the “…get the Sheriff, …now get the Marshall” scene. These are the types of moments we have learned to expect from Tarantino films.
There are other things we have a right to expect, and those are Oscar level performances. Sam Jackson has given 3 of them now. He was robbed of the statue with the bad editing decision that stole the tension from his big scene in Pulp Fiction. Pam Grier, Roberts Forster and De Niro were a lot to compete with, but he was up to the task in Jackie Brown with his sadistically business-like Ordell.
Now, with Stephen, Jackson truly has reached the pinnacle of his incredible career. An adversary in the truest sense, Stephen has found a spot in the world that exploits those who look like him. This spot has allowed for him to escape the brutality of his existence by being the biggest advocate of that cruelty. Indeed, it is almost like he is in charge of the entire operation. This is not Uncle Tom. This is Judas.
It is not like there is any amount of self-hatred going on here. Stephen truly thinks he is better than any 0f the captives of slavery, and he is damn sure that he has the advantage over the captors. He plays the game where it suits, but he jumps in when necessary. He is old and infirm. He is physically a threat to no one. Like a badger that protects the hard ground he lives in from a predator, Stephen protects his home like he’s backed against a wall. His is the most visceral presence in Django Unchained.
He gets some good competition from the titular character, however. Foxx gives a wonderful, evolving demonstration of a man who did not question his lot in life until he was treated like he deserved something better. The best thing about his performance is the buildup. There are moments early on, where he takes advantage of situations obviously in his favor. Conversations between he and his liberator, Shultz (Waltz) are more than just a way to pass time. He is collecting knowledge that he has been deprived of for his whole life. He is grateful, but not beholden. Shultz is an equal, a contemporary, and just from a place that knows different things. These things that he knows aren’t an indication of anything other than different life experience. This respect is exemplified in the way that they bid each other adieu.
Waltz’ performance starts out with a couple of delightful shots in the dark. As a bounty hunter posing as a dentist, he is exceptionally on top of every situation. As beautifully drawn as he is for a large part of the film, it is clear that Tarantino does not know what to do with the character after the afore-mentioned dining room scene. The scenes written for him after this point lose the punch and intelligence invested into the character throughout the rest of the film and take away from the overall effectiveness of the performance.
As Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio slowly develops an evil character who at first seems to be a buffoon, but in the end is revealed to be much more. An actor who continually pushes his abilities to the limit, DiCaprio has finally found the dimension of evil, and he puts every ounce of his soul into it. He could easily be considered for an Oscar as well, but not before Jackson.
The least effective character in the story is Broomhilda, who, as the object of the quest, is reduced to nothing more than someone who is under a constant trauma. We are told of her brave exploits, but all we ever see is her cowering and screaming in fear and implied agony. Part of this is due to the selection of Washington, who seems to have a limited range. One wonders what Angela Basset could have done with the role, or even, perhaps, Paula Patton. Washington inspires nothing in the way of sympathy or exalted joy.
The film running time is excessive, perhaps a winter too long in exposition. So many are the scenes with dumb white people suffering for their racist indignation, the movie almost seems more a comedy than anything else. It flows smoothly up until the moment you think it’s over, and then it runs another 40 minutes. There are several good Sam Jackson scenes after this point, so one can’t complain too much.
The music for the film is a mixed bag. Interesting, too, given this is a place of strength for Tarantino. Hearing those cheesy country songs from the low-budget films of the ’60’s and ’70’s is one thing, but hearing a rap song while people make a long trek in the sun is less than another. There was a cool point with another rap song during a gun fight…still a little weird, but better. It’s just that it feels like he should have experimented just a little more and worried less about selling the soundtrack to the Hip Hop crowd.
The movie made a lot of noise during a cold winter. It will make even more money. Calling the film significant to our culture is a stretch. Tarantino has our attention. One thinks he never will figure out completely what to do with it. For every character like Stephen, there are two more like Don Johnson and Jonah Hill’s Klan before the Klan. The result is fun, but not as essential as the subject might call for. If Jackson doesn’t win, isn’t it because the Academy doesn’t like comedies, generally?
(**** out of *****)