I’m completely enamored with the artistic aptitude of Quentin Tarantino. Always have been. I’ve seen his body of work many times over, and have yet to find a film that I didn’t love. So when it was announced all those months ago that Tarantino was going to make a slavery-set Western, I was game. Months ticked away, excitement mounted, and finally, on Christmas day, I sat in a sold out theater, completely spellbound for 165 minutes of film. During which, I never let myself forget that what I was seeing so highly surpassed my wildest expectations. And I ask, is there anything better than that?
Early in the film, Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter played perfectly by Christoph Waltz, rescues slave Django (Jamie Foxx), and hires him to help catch his latest bounty. And after some schooling, dressing, and mannering, Schultz and Django begin a fruitful bounty hunting partnership. They hunt, they kill, they collect. When their hunting is finished, Django has plans of rescuing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCpario). Intrigued by the idea of instilling further good, Schultz elects to help Django in his daring mission of romance.
Now, this being the world of Tarantino, you can be damn sure that a paragraph of plot analysis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, and that’s okay. Mr. Tarantino is a far more talented writer than myself, and his words are best discovered the way they are meant: from the characters themselves. And holy shit if we don’t have some great ones here.
With his animalistic methods of hunt and his moralistic views motivated by money, Waltz’s Schultz reminded me of a distant relative of the actor’s Hans Landa, who he portrayed in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Don’t get me wrong, Schultz’s sensibilities are far more delicate than Landa’s but the point is, this is another fully realized character from Christopher Waltz. Same for DiCaprio’s Candie, which is so far and away from anything the actor has played that I sat literally stunned by his work. Whether he’s mercilessly enjoying watching two black fighters beat each other to death, or ordering a slave to be mauled to death by a dog, Candie is a vile, disgusting man, and DiCaprio plays him convincingly, to a ferocious T.
Speaking of disgusting, a few weeks before this film was released, Samuel L. Jackson said he wanted his character, Stephen, to represent the most despicable black character ever depicted in film. Damn close. Stephen is the head house slave for Candie’s main plantation, dubbed “Candieland.” So, in effect, Stephen’s allegiance is first and only to his master. All others, including those of color, can be goddamned (and are).
While those three actors have been dominating the press surrounding this film, specific mention needs to be given to Jamie Foxx, for making Django’s character arc so believable. When we meet him, he’s a scared shitless slave without a purpose. But as his courage builds and his confidence peaks, Django becomes a new man. And when he’s forced to push his bravado dangerously further, it’s important to clarify that this is Jamie Foxx playing Django playing Django. It’s a performance within a performance, and we’re continually on edge as to whether Django (or is it Jamie…?) will forget that.
Much has been made on the fact that Django Unchained is a movie about slavery made by a white man. I’m not qualified to speak on the merits of artistic expression as it relates to race, but I will say that Django Unchained is a film rooted in an ugly American truth. It doesn’t shy away from showing how awful it was (and how despicable many of us were). It’s a fascinating, historical examination of one of the darkest of American hours, with a little pulp fiction mixed in for good measure.
Moving on from that, there’s an action climax in this film that involves a lot of shooting, a lot of killing, and a lot of expert slow motion. Through much of it, the James Brown/2Pac mashup “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” booms over the soundtrack. And it was during this sequence that I noticed something quite profound. I picked up my dropped jaw and took myself out of the film for a spilt second, telling myself that This. This is why you love movies. Playing a James Brown/2Pac song in a slavery movie should work about as well as playing a David Bowie song in a World War II epic, which is to say, not at all. Yet in does, gloriously.
Django Unchained could arguably end after that segment, which, for a moment, I thought it had. Thankfully, it does not. In that flawless, uniquely Tarantino way, the director had a lot more to show us. Which I certainly hope is the case for many years to come. A