We all know that Quentin Tarantino is an audacious filmmaker. If there’s a genre of filmmaking that he loves, he will produce his take on it at some point – and he really, really loves spaghetti westerns. For his version of a spaghetti western, though, he doesn’t just explode the conventions of the genre – he does for slavery what he did for World War II in Inglourious Basterds. The result is seriously bloody fun.
Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as a slave who is purchased by a roving dentist/bounty hunter named Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) – who agrees to free him and help him find his wife (Kerry Washington) if he will help track down a trio of killers called The Brittle Brothers. What ensues is the growth of an unusual friendship and a whole lot of violence and flying n-words.
Since Tarantino strings an outlandish amount of plot into every one of his movies – and generally loves to play with different timeframes – it’s hard to give any kind of synopsis that won’t give away something else of importance so I won’t do that.
I will say that Django Unchained is a beautifully constructed film in which, as Tarantino has said, Django goes from being a slave to being not only a free man, but a professional – a bounty hunter, trained by Schulz and become his partner.
There are encounters with a comical predecessor of the KKK (led by a terrifically over the top Don Johnson), a small town sheriff who is not what he seems and, of course, the very proper southern gentleman/Mandingo fighting aficionado and plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) – and his right hand plantation man, house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, stealing every scene he’s in in a scary, mean, dangerously funny role).
There is violence – to show the oppressed you must show the oppressor – really horrific violence. And blood, lots of blood – often in close proximity to/simultaneously with Tarantino’s in-your-face humor.
Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is a film that looks great (cinematography by Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds, Hugo) whether capturing a dusty town in the southwest, or winter in the mountains.
And, as in most of Tarantino’s films, statements are made in the guise of genre. Frequently, he gets us to laugh the most outrageous situations – then we stop for a second and feel uncomfortable before going ahead and laughing at the next outrageous situation. That is exactly the reaction he wants.
Of course, he also wants us on the edge of our seats in tense moments and maybe getting a little misty at others, but it’s his use of utterly inappropriate humor in such a blatant manner – and to such good effect – that makes his films his films. His ability to do that is one of the things that separate him from his growing legions of imitators.
Another is his ability to fold quotes from other films (and even his previous work) into his movies. Usually, a real film aficionado can spot dozens of these quotes/homages, but they are woven into his films in such a way that the change of context makes them feel not like rip-offs, but fresh, integral parts of a completely new story. In Django Unchained, there’s one particularly vivid moment that comes directly from Kill Bill (I won’t say which volume – that might spoil the fun). It takes barely a second, but is a moment of both great violence and great beauty.
While you don’t want to focus on a film’s score/soundtrack, Tarantino also uses music from his favorite films and repurposes them in clever ways to make the point that he’s not just a serious film buff – he’s an original filmmaker. The soundtrack for Django Unchained makes use of music from a number of spaghetti westerns in a mix with a few original songs and a splendid mash-up featuring James Brown and 2Pac but everything flows together and genuinely feels of a piece.
Django Unchained is kind of a typical Tarantino film in that it’s a lot of violent, bloody fun – but also in that it deals with a very serious topic in an irreverent manner. It’s not for everyone, but if you love Tarantino or spaghetti westerns – or even blaxploitation flicks – you will most likely love it. Plus, it has the blessing of the original Django – Franco Nero has what may be the film’s single most perfect cameo!
Final Grade: A+
Photos courtesy The Weinstein Company