Movie Review: DJANGO UNCHAINED Is One of Quentin Tarantino’s Best Pictures

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Django Unchained is like every Quentin Tarantino picture, and none of them.  As the late, great Roger Ebert once wrote, Tarantino – like David Mamet – has such a distinctive voice that you only need to hear a few seconds of one of his movies to know who made it; so it goes with Django Unchained.  The explosive use of violence, the perfectly timed needle drops that aren’t temporally bound to the on-screen historical content (if you thought David Bowie popping up in the WWII-set Inglourious Basterds was audacious, then consider this: Django Unchained might be the only pre-Civil War slave narrative featuring Civil Rights-era protest music and hardcore gangsta rap), the florid and profanely descriptive dialogue: Django Unchained pre-sets these Tarantino.

Yet in key ways, the film finds Tarantino operating in a mode different from anything he has ever done.  For all his arch, postmodern sensibilities – this time around, the filmmaker mixes in references to Mark Twain, Scarface, Mandingo, The Legend of N****r Charley, I, Claudius, “The Boondocks,” and reams of Spaghetti Westerns, not least of which is Sergio Corbucci’s similarly titled Django – Tarantino gives his latest work a full, sincere heart.  It’s the understatement of the year to say that Tarantino doesn’t show this side off much.  Other than Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s unrequited relationship in Jackie Brown and the long, sad conversation between ex-lovers/mortal enemies The Bride and Bill that concludes Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Tarantino tends to keep his cinematic emotions in check.

In that regard, it might come as a shock how affecting Django Unchained is.  The movie hinges on two acts of intimacy: the bond that develops between Django (Jamie Foxx) and German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the great Christoph Waltz), and Django’s love for his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, doing wonders with an underwritten part).  As far as Django and Broomhilda go, Tarantino is playing with conventional – but no less satisfying – screen mechanics.  The flashbacks we see of the couple have a feverish intensity, and we instantly buy that Django would be hell-bent on rescuing his wife.  For our hero, no extreme is too great, least of all venturing into Chickasaw County, Mississippi (Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson give the Southern landscape a mossy rot that seems more dangerous that the Nazi-occupied France of Inglourious Basterds), and Tarantino’s masterstroke is having Schultz frame Django’s journey in terms of the Siegfried and Brünnhilde saga that powered Wagner’s Ring Cycle; that simple parallel lends the already epic Django Unchained mythic grandeur.

However, Django could not find Broomhilda without Schultz, and so we come one of Tarantino’s most inspired creations.  Schultz frees Django on the condition that the former slave helps him hunt down a trio of outlaws; their bounty-hunting adventures, which take up the first hour of the picture, have the flavor of a great buddy-cop thriller.  When we first meet Django, he’s barely human and borderline inarticulate, though he regards the mad German with a quiet amazement; Waltz takes that virtuosic verbosity that made his Colonel Hans Landa such a trip and tunes it to the side of justice, and the glee he derives from confounding Django Unchained‘s dense roster of racists and murderers (including Walton Goggins, Jonah Hill, Zoe Bell, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini, M.C. Gainey, Laura Cayouette, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, James Russo, John Jarrett, Michael Parks, and Don Johnson, who’s a hoot as a plantation owner with a style that’s half Colonel Sanders and half Foghorn Leghorn) is palpable.  This is a star performance, through and through – Waltz richly deserved the Academy Award (his second) he won for his work here.

That said, it’s a credit to Foxx that you still pay attention to Django even as Waltz devours the scenery around him.  Foxx’s subtle, attentive work is a master class on how actors should listen on-camera.  Foxx lets you see how Django is constantly internalizing this experience.  In every scene of the film, he’s a little different from the previous one, more confident, less withdrawn.  Django asserting himself, in turn, impacts Schultz, who begins to consider the realities of the world around him in a way that exceeds the limits of his silver tongue and inexhaustible arsenal, and what started as a marriage of convenience turns into something deeper and more profound.  This is a movie that cares about friendship, and the mutual respect that can change two people willing to engage the other person on their own terms.  Django and Schultz’s final moment together might be Tarantino’s finest hour – in one heartbreaking, understated beat, Tarantino hits us with the weight of these two men’s love for one another.

The infusion of slavery’s horrors gives Django Unchained that weight.  Tarantino certainly does not deny viewers the comic-sick bloodshed that often permeates his movies; besides bullet hits that must have funded the Karo company for a decade, we get two castrations by gunshot and a bullet-wound-to-the-chest gag that recalls nothing less than an unpopular vaudeville act getting yanked off the stage.  But there’s movie-violence and violence-violence, and the scenes of slave cruelty fall squarely in the latter category.  There’s nothing glib about a brutal fist-fight between two slaves forced to fight to the death, or the tearing flesh and frenzied screams of a runaway slave ripped apart by attack dogs.  For Tarantino, the emotional stakes of Django’s relationships with Broomhilda and Schultz resonate because they act as a bulwark – desperate attempts at using human connections to stanch the bleeding.

Now, lest you worry that Django Unchained is some mediation on love and honor, fear not.  The film is an embarrassment of riches; every scene is a tightly scripted dazzler, with the high comedy and action of the first hour giving way to a second hour that plays like a cornpone spy thriller (and I mean that as a compliment).  See, Django and Schultz finally find Broomhilda, but actually saving her is a horse of a different color – she has fallen into the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a genially twisted plantation owner whose depredations register so strongly because Candie grounds them in Southern hospitality.  For anyone worried that Leo had lost his sense of humor to years of Oscar-baiting prestige pictures, his performance as Candie will be a tonic.  He’s never been looser or more engaging, and that’s saying something, considering what a rotter Candie is (during the screening, a friend of mine asked if he’d taken relaxation lessons from Brad Pitt).

However, the MVP of this second section is Samuel L. Jackson.  Jackson always gives Tarantino his best, and he’s a marvel as Stephen, Candie’s house slave and right-hand-man.  It’s a bold, provocative performance that’s potentially off-putting in its broad strokes; Stephen looks like the lovechild of Uncles Ben and Ruckus, and Tarantino stuffs his dialogue with so many “Stepin Fetchit” malapropisms that it’s easy to mistake Stephen for a crude stereotype.  But Tarantino has more on his agenda, and Stephen emerges as Django Unchained‘s most fascinating character, a slave who’s as well versed in the horrors of slavery as Django is yet lets his loyalties drift in the name of self-preservation.  Stephen speaks to a particularly ugly reality of the slave experience, but Jackson never lets you forget the psychic cost Stephen has paid.

At the end of the day, that acknowledgment gives Django Unchained power.  In exchange for a rollicking good time, Tarantino expects viewers to consider one of the darkest chapters of American history in all its facets.  These people talk and fight and bleed, but they can never quite escape the horrible realities of slavery.  That goes double for Django.  In one light, the explosive climax plays as the celebration of a hero, with Django ascending triumphant.  In another, his victories are dripping in blood, which tends to look the same no matter who’s shedding it.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy/UltraViolet combo pack presents the film in a gorgeous HD transfer.  I’ve never been 100% satisfied with how theaters presented Django Unchained last year – it has a very specific, mossy aesthetic that just looks soft and unfocused through most DI’s.  Luckily, the Blu-ray rectifies the look, allowing for fine details and good contrast.  The disc also has a robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which alternates expertly between dialogue, gunfights, and Tarantino’s musical selections.

Features are, unfortunately, a little light.  What we get is fine – about forty-five minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained,” “Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained,” and “The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis”) and promos for the Tarantino XX boxset and the Django Unchained soundtrack (which is a must-buy, by the by).  However, given the film’s often fraught pre-production and production history, I would have appreciated a more in-depth making-of documentary, as well as a look at some of the deleted scenes; during the film’s promotional events, the stars all reflected wistfully on material that Tarantino cut from the theatrical version, including another Django/Stephen confrontation, a fuller look at Mandingo trainer Billy Crash’s day-to-day tasks at Candie’s plantation, and extended versions of the Mandingo fight and dog attack.

Still, it’s a tribute to Django Unchained that the film feels complete, uncompromised.  It’s a rare, odd, thrilling beast, and proof that Tarantino is only getting better in his old age.

Django Unchained is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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