Quentin Tarantino‘s latest .44 magnum opus Django Unchained marks his first foray into the Western genre (well, it’s actually more of a Southern) and also gives us his take on the “hero origin” story. Unlike his epic Kill Bill where we don’t know how the story of Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba/The Bride began, the saga of Django shows us his transformation from slave to folkloric legend.
The opening scenes hit hard showing the cruelty of human bondage as we follow a chain gang through blistering heat of a Budd Boetticher style, rocky Western backdrop into the frigid temperatures of night while they’re guarded by two slavers, Dicky and Ace Speck (James Russo and James Remar). Out of the dark a beacon appears in the form of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter in the guise of a traveling dentist. Sitting on his customized Tooth Wagon he immediately inquires about a slave from a certain plantation where some men he’s looking for may be. One of the exhausted men in chains, Django (Jamie Foxx) speaks up and informs him he knows who they are. When the Speck Brothers pull their guns and tell Schultz to get lost or else, the polite stranger shows himself to be something much more dangerous than a mere doctor.
After freeing the slaves as well as Django, who accompanies him on his latest mission, the two make a stop in Daughtrey Texas where Dr. Schultz gives young Django the rundown on what he really does. While in town, Schultz takes care of one of his bounties, a Wanted man hiding in disguise as the local Sheriff. The two then follow a lead to get The Brittle brothers who are posing as overseers on a Tennesee plantation owned by flamboyant pimp/slaver “Big Daddy” aka Spencer Gordon Bennett (Don Johnson). Schultz introduces himself as a man looking for some sweet black beauties (known as “ponies”) to establish trust with his host. When Django discovers the Brittles are in fact on the property he uses his new found status as a free man to get his first taste of personal revenge and confronts them with deadly force in front of Bennett’s slaves. Following the explosive showdown, Schultz saves Django by explaining to Big Daddy they’re actually there on official business as bounty hunters and have proof. Bennett orders them to leave at once then calls upon a group of racist regulators (an early form of the KKK) to help him lynch the two later that night. What he doesn’t know is Dr. Schultz and Django are ready and waiting for the bushwhack. Bennett and his band of bigot bagheads provide one of the funniest sequences in the film turning the D.W. Griffith “Birth of a Nation” style attack into one big screwball farce.
With their initial team up being a success, Dr. Schultz and Django decide to form an official partnership in the bounty hunting business. As they ride through the vast open terrain of the Western states, Django sharpens his skills as a marksman but most importantly he becomes a proud, strong man. On their travels, Django informs Schultz about his estranged wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who he wants to find. Being German, Schultz is amazed to learn that “Hildi” actually knows the language herself. He then tells Django the old German myth about Broomhilda and Siegfried which connects to his own situation especially well. Schultz finds out through slave records that Hildi has been bought by a Monsiuer Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) the owner of one of the biggest cotton plantations in Mississippi called “Candyland”. He then comes up with a scheme to use Candie’s main interest, “Mandingo fighting” as a way into his world to gain access to Hildi and rescue her. Schultz and Django have an initial meeting with Candie at “The Cleopatra Club” where they are introduced to Mandingo fighting in all its brutality and viciousness. Through some flim flamming, Schultz gets invited to Candie’s vast plantation under the assumption he may purchase his own fighter there.
Upon their arrival at Candyland they are greeted by Candie’s lovely southern belle sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) and the head servant Stephen (Samuel L.Jackson) who immediately takes a disliking to our hero Django since he is a free man. Stephen represents the worst kind of “house negro” in history, the type that uses his status in the family hierarchy to maintain his powers over the other slaves through fear and intimidation. He’s been labeled the “Basil Rathbone” of the film for good reason. Hildi and Django are soon reunited but must keep it a secret while Schultz continues his ruse playing a neophyte in the Mandingo fighting biz. The scenes shot inside Candie’s home are actually beautiful to look at with their candlelit elegance. This is of course in stark contrast to the atmosphere outside its doors which is a brutal lifestyle for the slaves.
Jamie Foxx’s Django follows in the classic tradition of such great black action movie heroes like Fred Williamson (Boss Nigger), Jim Brown (Slaughter) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) with a dash of Clint Eastwood‘s minimalistic Man with No Name mixed in. He is truly a straight up badass in this role and it’s my favorite of all his film work so far. What I loved most about Django is his attitude towards everyone around him once he is freed, most notably the white rednecks that think they know who they’re dealing with. Their slackjawed, dumbfounded reactions to him are just a delight to behold. More than anything else his personal journey from being just an anonymous slave to becoming an iconic hero is amazing to witness.
Christoph Waltz gives a brilliant performance as Dr. King Schultz, the enigmatic foreigner/outsider who is a bit of a walking contradiction. On one hand he’s very wily and intellectual but on the other rather wreckless and narcissistic. Still, his own negative points are overshadowed by the great deeds he performs for his friend Django who he feels responsibility to protect. Schultz has cinematic origins in film characters we’ve seen in Westerns before like Col. Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More and also Thomas Price from Hannie Caulder.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the devilish, effete Candie is one of his best interpretations with its layered dark humor and deranged intensity. While Candie is certainly a despicable human being, you can’t deny he has a very intriguing personality and is one of QT’s most memorable bureaucratic villains along with Bill from Kill Bill and Col. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. That’s always been one of QT’s main strengths as an artist, creating characters we aren’t necessarily supposed to like and shining a light on them that’s not all good or bad.
The film has stirred up its share of controversy for dealing with the subject of slavery head on and for its use of the N-word. As a white person, I felt while watching that everything was kept in perfect balance as far as the realities of the Antebellum South were concerned. It comes through quite clear as a completely honest depiction of the language used and how the attitudes of the people on both the black and white sides were at the time. The most repulsive scenes were done with a great amount of empathy towards the characters and you can practically feel the heartbreak right through the screen. What QT did is bring a modern outlook to the proceedings which is really what makes it so thrilling and keeps it from being a boring, watered down history lesson on film (this ain’t ROOTS!). The graphic violence on the other hand is rather excessive even for Tarantino standards. The Maestro of Movie Mayhem really took things up about 100 notches with his latest piece. I’d say there’s more red stuff (thickest blood ever!) splattered in this than in Kill Bill and The Wild Bunch combined. I really felt like I had just been to a Gallagher routine after watching some of the shootouts.
Director of Photography Robert Richardson‘s expressive and dynamic lighting schemes provide the Southern Fried opera with some truly gorgeous visuals. The big bold scope of it all takes the viewer from the snowy mountains of Wyoming to the sunbaked setting of Mississippi and it’s through the aesthetics of classic Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation genre films that Richardson brings Tarantino’s vision into the 21st century. The audacious set designs and fashions provide yet another important part of the piece. They are authentic to the period but also have that custom Tarantino touch for good measure.
Pop music is always integral to the fabric of QT’s work and this film has some uses of original and existing pieces that take it to majestic heights. From Jim Croce’s 70s hit “I Got A Name” to classic Ennio Morricone (Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Hellbenders) to Riz Ortolani‘s main theme for Day of Anger to new sounds by artists like John Legend, Rick Ross and Brother Dege, it’s a bombastic soundtrack that sets the mood with “panache” as the good Dr. Schultz would put it.
Django Unchained is another post-modern masterpiece from the pop culture saturated mind of Writer-Director Quentin Tarantino. He has painted an expansive cinematic mural using inspirations from both Hollywood and Italian Westerns and filled them into the corners of America’s most shameful era to ultimately conjure a cathartic, extremely emotional, ambitious adventure/love story.
Check out The DJANGO UNCHAINED PRIMER for a look at some of the classic movies that inspired QT’s epic.
- 2013 Academy Award Nominations -
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Best Picture: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone
Best Sound Editing: Wylie Stateman
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz