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Entries in Django Unchained [2012] (1)


Django Unchained (2012)

Slavish Devotion

I've seen the word "masterpiece" thrown around a lot in reference to Quentin Tarantino's latest picture, Django Unchained. Unlike most Oscar-season hyperbole, the boot fits in this case, and no one should be surprised. From Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown in the 90s, to Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and now this blood-squibs-and-romance SpaghettiO Western in the new century, the writer/director has officially spent two decades in the masterpiece business.*

As a Tarantino fan since my mid-teens, I've had the pleasure of growing into adulthood along a track that roughly parallels his maturation as a filmmaker. The early movies were pure badassery, with quippy pop dialogue and enough inventive action scenes to inspire a generation of ear-slicing auteur imitators. In the last ten years, he's mostly abandoned the kitsch aspect of his nostalgia for the down-and-dirty movies that inspired him as a boy and focused his attentions outward. Gone is the fetishistically worshipped underworld killer (his go-to protagonist early on); in comes the noble loner on a quest for justice and/or redemption and/or love.**

Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as the titular pre-Civil War slave who's freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz's next big prize is a trio of murderous bandits whom only Django can positively identify, and he takes his skeptical new companion under his wing while pursuing them. Django learns the art of identity-creation as a means of infiltrating their prey's social circles, as well as the finer points of long-range assassination. It turns out he's an ace shot, but Schultz instills in him a ruthlessness that runs counter to Django's innate sensitivity; in the bounty hunting business, people are just bodies and bodies can be redeemed for cash.

After several profitable jobs, Schultz agrees to help Django track down and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They devise a bait-and-switch scheme that doesn't turn out the way they'd expected, and this is where my synopsis ends. Django Unchained has to be seen to be believed, from both a storytelling standpoint and a visual one. Tarantino has outdone himself again, with rich characters, wild historical liberties, and an attention to texture that makes his latest film not just a "Tarantino Western", but a bona fide Western for the ages.

More than an homage to the big-name classics, this movie is a tribute to the unconventional Westerns that redefined how we look at the genre. In the mixed-race protagonist duo and flagrant anachronisms, it's impossible not to think of Gene Wilder and Clevon Little in Blazing Saddles. In his meditations on loyalty, the resilience of spirit, and the value of human life, Tarantino puts his stamp on Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. True, these are themes he's built up and tweaked in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, especially, but Django Unchained feels like a thesis statement honed from diligently considered notes.

That's not to say Django Unchained is all reference and no voice. Who else but Quentin Tarantino could pull off scoring a breathtaking Robert Richardson landscape to Rick Ross's "100 Black Coffins"? In dealing with a larger-than-life, largely unresolved issue like slavery, it takes a grand, warped personality to create comedy that's as poignant as the drama--and to offer a violent catharsis that's liable to make even the whitest white folks in the audience feel oddly guilty, then angry, then redeemed through Django's bloody vengeance.

This may be the first post-racial film of the new century. As much as Tarantino has been wrongly criticized for his liberal use of "nigger", there's no denying which side of the social-justice divide he comes down on. The word's harshness should only be jarring if you've trained your brain to reject the epithet in every circumstance, leaving no room for art or context. The genius of Django is that Tarantino makes niggers of everyone who sees it: this is not a simple parable about slavery or revenge; it's a call to uprising against a ruling class that has been around in one form or another for centuries. Blacks may be on the bottom of the totem pole here, but it's clear that everyone from the dirty cowboys who wrangle them to the plantation administrators who wrangle the cowboys are all at the evil mercy of the individual with the most money and power.***

And here's where genuine guilt enters the picture. Once you get past Tarantino's take on metaphorical slavery, you must contend with the fact that slave labor is still a very real problem. Americans have simply pushed such notions of its pervasiveness out of our collective consciousness by off-shoring our immoral labor forces and acting as though the Civil Rights Act of '64 magically made everything okay between African Americans and everyone else. Sure, we don't have plantations here in the States anymore, but there's a 99.997 percent chance that whatever device you're reading this on was created under conditions that no sane person would mistake for liberty.

Indeed, if Napoleon was correct in his assertion that history is a myth men agree to believe, then one must forgive Tarantino for his flourishes and either create some more convincing lies about the myriad injustices going on outside the multiplex--or agree to tackle them head-on.

Pardon me, while I step down from my apple crate.

The long and short of it is, you're not likely to find a more thrilling, moving, hilarious experience at the movies this season. Aside from some awkwardly episodic third-act pacing and Tarantino's horrendous, show-stopping Aussie accent (Quentin, please step back behind the camera and stay there), I can find no fault with this picture. Every performance by the main cast--and I mean an award-caliber revelation.

If you've spent the last decade-and-a-half foolishly making fun of DiCaprio for being "Mr. Titanic", I promise you'll pass out from embarrassment after seeing what he can do with a great, twisted villain role. If you'd written off Samuel L. Jackson as a lazy paycheck hound, wait 'til you meet Stephen, Calvin Candie's bitter but strangely loyal servant.

Last, but not least, we have Foxx and Waltz, who fill each scene with heart, humor, and a charisma that made me want to follow their adventures through a whole series of Django movies (too bad that's impossible--SPOILER!!!). Foxx has completed his journey from lowest-common-denominator TV sketch comic to movie star to powerhouse actor, and I can't wait to see what he does next. Waltz creates a character just as compelling as Inglourious Basterds' Hans Landa, but who operates on the flip-side of the morality coin; both men are stone-cold killers with wide smiles and awe-inspiring command of the disarming anecdote, but Schultz has the added benefit of being a genuinely root-worthy character.

It's fashionable to say that a popular director's latest film is his or her best yet. In Tarantino's case, determining a "best" is always a challenge. He so frequently meddles in different genres and blows expectations out of the water that comparing his movies to one another is almost unfair--just as it's weird asking someone to rank O Brother, Where Art Thou? against No Country for Old Men: same creative team, but you wouldn't know it to look at the work.

Hell, maybe I'm just getting caught up in this bullshit, year-end need to categorize everything.

Well, fine.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Django Unchained is the second-best film of 2012.

*Let's agree to turn a collective blind eye to Four Rooms and Death Proof (a movie I happen to really enjoy, but which Tarantino recently called the worst of his career).

**True, the law rarely pops up in Tarantino movies except as a nuisance or canon fodder, but the heroes of his films can at least be relied upon to have a moral code that their adversaries decidedly do not.

***There's no finer evidence for this than a beautiful exchange between Django and Candie's sycophantic attorney, played with pure banality-of-evil cluelessness by Dennis Christopher.