Django Unchained (2012)
By: Stuart Giesel on February 4, 2013 | Comments
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring:: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Screnplay: Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA
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Quentin Tarantino, never the subtle filmmaker, decides to go for broke with his gleefully violent and occasionally astonishing epic that's so much more than its "Inglourious Basterds-go-South" premise. It's one of those films, like District 9, Children of Men and The Matrix, to name a few, which is so pants-shittingly thrilling you're thinking about watching it again even though you haven't finished watching it.

When analysed clinically, Django Unchained shouldn't really work. Like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, it's an odd amalgam of genres. In this case, Tarantino's cherry-picked bits from 70's-era blaxploitation, Italian spaghetti westerns from the 60's and other more contemporary westerns to craft an offbeat and enjoyably pulpy slice of entertainment that just happens to be about American slavery. The film doesn't shy away from the horrors of slavery, yet the grim material is balanced with a deliciously dark sense of humour - just check out the scene with a band of white-sheeted vigilantes, acting as a precursor to the KKK, which is one of the funniest scenes Tarantino has ever written.

In Texas, two years before the Civil War, German-born bounty hunter (and lapsed dentist) Dr King Schultz (the wonderful Christoph Waltz) is tracking the murderous Brittle Brothers for a handsome reward, utilising the talents of brutalised but newly-freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help identify them. Schultz is impressed with Django's abilities and the pair become partners in the bounty hunter business. They enter a pact - Django helps Schultz with his business through the winter, and Schultz will help Django track down and free his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The trail leads to the immense plantation Candyland, owned by the brutal and racist slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz uses a pretense for the purchase of a high-price Mandingo fighter to mask the real reason that he and Django are there; unfortunately for them, Candie's "Uncle Tom" assistant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) senses that Django and Broomhilda have a history.

Everything in Django Unchained clicks. The cast is uniformly superb. Waltz is probably the standout even if his Schultz is simply a more human take on his Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Hans Landa in Basterds. His genial manner and eloquent speeches are a thing of beauty, and it's a credit to both Waltz and Tarantino that the character remains so likeable despite the nature of his ugly profession. Almost on par are Jackson and DiCaprio in remarkably different roles than we've seen from them before. Jackson, buried under makeup and adopting an elderly stoop and geriatric traits, is outstanding in what must have been a challenging role as the "house nigger" - aside from a black slave owner, the most despised of roles for a black man in this era - and shows that he can be as ruthless as his master. A repulsive old sycophant with genuine affection for Candie, it's a difficult and troubling role that Jackson nails masterfully. It's certainly his best and most memorable performance since Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. DiCaprio plays Candie as a despicable man who thinks of himself as a cultured gent - he considers himself a Francophile despite the fact he can't speak a word of French - even when he's setting the dogs on one of his slaves, proclaiming the merits of phrenology or brandishing a hammer with wicked intent. DiCaprio clearly relishes the opportunity of playing such a hideous, evil character - when he sneers with stained, grotty teeth it's as unsettling as anything else in Django Unchained.

That's not to say that Waltz, Jackson and DiCaprio completely outshine everyone else. Jamie Foxx brings a dignity - and scarcely disguised fury - to his role as Django ("the D is silent"). He's happy to let Waltz and DiCaprio chew the scenery, comfortable with playing the stoic straight man (albeit with a few amusing quips here and there). Kerry Washington's Broomhilda has less to do and subsequently has a hard job to stand out amongst everyone else, but her scene with Waltz as they converse in German is one of the best moments of the film. There are a wealth of cameos and supporting roles, some which get lost in the mix or presumably edited out of the film (such as Zoe Bell's masked, axe-wielding henchman) but it's fun to spot some familiar faces like Tom Savini and Franco Nero. A late appearance by Tarantino himself sporting a dodgy Aussie accent feels out of place, but by this stage you're so immersed in the film that it's easy to overlook - I assume he relished the chance to appear onscreen with buddy John Jarratt.

Despite running at two-and-three-quarter hours, I could have easily watched another couple of hours of Django Unchained. It's been quite some time since I've seen a film that's kept me so riveted in my seat and so easily swayed my emotions. With seemingly great ease, Django is able to transition from scenes that are genuinely bold and thrilling to horrifying and sickening to enjoyably cathartic to brooding and tense and back again without breaking a sweat. The dialogue, always a high point in any Tarantino production, is less showy than expected if you discount Schultz's monologues, which suits its setting. Some are sure to be offended by the persistent use of the word "nigger" even though it fits the film in its context and harkens back to other like-minded productions such as Boss Nigger and Mandingo.

As expected, Django Unchained is brutal, remarkably so, with copious amounts of splattery violence splashing across the screen - to be honest I'm surprised the film got away with an MA rating here in Australia. One scene is reminiscent of the gory finale of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow II. Thankfully, some of the nastier moments such as the dog attack are hinted at rather than shown in explicit detail. It's an interesting dichotomy: Unchained wants to criticize - and rightfully so - the horrors of the slave trade whilst eating its proverbial cake by having us relish in Django's blood-soaked, revenge-fuelled odyssey. Yet somehow Tarantino makes it work. One moment you're sitting gobsmacked or snickering at a particularly over-the-top moment of splashy gore, the next you're recoiling at a brutal Mandingo fight or some equally repellent treatment of a slave. Thankfully Tarantino plays events in a straightforward narrative, chronologically-speaking, except for a few brief flashbacks. A more unconventional narrative like one used in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill wouldn't have worked as well here.

Technically the film is impeccable. Robert Richardson's cinematography bathes the film in a warm beauty, creating some truly evocative moments. The editing doesn't quite feel as sharp as other Tarantino films - almost certainly due to the unfortunate loss of his former editor Sally Menke in 2010 - but editor Fred Raskin must be doing something right, making this nearly three-hour movie feel like it runs half the length. And Tarantino's use of music is as masterly as always, with samplings of Johnny Cash, James Brown, Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Luis Bacalov and, as my personal highlight, part of Jerry Goldsmith's sublime score for Under Fire for the scene where the cast arrives at Candyland. This is Tarantino at his best: able to cherry-pick his favourite moments and gimmicks from movies past and stylise even the most reprehensible of themes for his own purposes. He uses techniques gleaned from exploitation and low-budget films such as whip-zooms, garish titles and bleached footage to grunge-up this $100 million production.

It's possibly too early to proclaim Django Unchained as my favourite Tarantino film; a few more viewings may be necessary. It took a few views to fully appreciate Jackie Brown and for the lustre and hype of Pulp Fiction to wear off. Django may prove to be not quite as explosive on its third or fourth go-around as its has with its first showing. But nothing can diminish the impact of its first viewing. Holy hell, what a ride.

Let it be known that if you haven't liked much of Tarantino's other work, then Django Unchained probably won't convert you. Some will find much of Django overlong, unnecessary and far too disturbing. Frankly, yes, it should be a mess - Tarantino does excess like no one else, the film is indulgent and as with some of his other work it's a mish-mash of styles. After all, this is slavery prettied up as a bloody revenge fantasy. Yet everything works. Stunningly shot, superbly acted, as audacious as cinema gets, Django Unchained is one of the most irreverent, richest and boldest movies you're ever likely to see on the big screen.
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