Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained, the 8th movie from Quentin Tarantino, was better than I
expected, but not quite as good as I wanted on a first viewing. As of now, I think Inglorious Bastards (I refuse to learn how to misspell that properly) is possibly QTʼs best movie since Pulp Fiction (though I readily admit I still have never seen Jackie Brown), and I may need another viewing of Django to decide which movie I think is best. Right now its Bastards, though that could change in the future.
I wonʼt go through a summary of the film as the general plot is known to anyone who has seen the trailers: German bounty hunter Dr. King Schulz frees Django to help him find some bounties that only Django can identify. Schulz teaches Django how to shoot and become a bounty hunter, and along the way he decides to help Django find and free his still enslaved wife.
The movie is tense and at times extremely hilarious. There are moments of
violence that have you cheering and other moments that have you wincing. Blood erupts from gunshot wounds not like the spewing geysers found in “Kill Bill”, but explodes forth from bodies as if a manʼs chest was nothing more than a water balloon filled with red (and this gets huge laughs from the audience at times).
Christoph Waltz does a great job as Schulz, Djangoʼs savior and teacher, channeling the charisma of his earlier Hans Landa though infusing him with much more warmth and likability than the former. Leonardo DiCaprio is a hoot as Francophile and plantation owner Calvin Candie, capable of youthful excitability in one scene and furious anger in the next. Kerry Washington is still drop-dead gorgeous, though she doesnʼt have much to do here other than cry and hide her emotions. Jamie Foxx, I must admit, did not impress me in the trailers for this film, which I never found that great to begin with (and I admit none of the Bastardsʼ trailers appealed to me either), but he turns in a wonderfully hardened performance here as the titular character. Thereʼs anger and resentment bubbling behind those eyes of his, but you rarely see it boil over the surface. And Samuel L. Jackson? Hilarious. Just hilarious in his Uncle Ben makeup. I wonʼt say any more because his performance is best experienced instead of being told about.
Tarantinoʼs soundtracks are often as anticipated as the movies themselves, and I find myself at a loss for how to describe the one QT has chosen for Django. For being his “southern” movie, Iʼm surprised that Bastards and Kill Bill seemed to have more “western” cues than this one. And for what may be the first time ever, Tarantino put in a few contemporary hip-hop songs and some original songs written specifically for this movie. And when youʼre used to Tarantino using old songs or music from other films (and to be sure, Luis Bacalovʼs “Django” from the original film is the first song you hear), it was a bit jarring to suddenly hear rap in this pre-Civil War era film. Its not out of place, mind you, just something different from the filmmaker. The standout song for me here is Jim Croceʼs “I Got a Name”, which elicited quite a few laughs as it was just completely unexpected.
Now all of Tarantinoʼs movies have moments of pure cinema, those bits that just canʼt be achieved or expressed as well through the written word, moments that remind you that “HEY, this is a MOVIE!”. For instance, thereʼs the scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace draws the imaginary square onscreen. Bastards, for the most part, feels like a straight story, and Tarantino only gives us this pure cinema moment with the Hugo Stiglitz backstory, giving us a freeze frame, a character title, and a voiceover explaining what happened to him. Some have criticized this moment in Bastards, suggesting Tarantino just couldnʼt stop himself from doing something “cool” like that. Thankfully, there isnʼt anything close to that in Django. The closest we come is a crawl explaining to us the passage of time, and then a very ominous and dramatic text denoting the next location. But aside from that, there are no Chapters like in Bastards and Kill Bill, no imaginary shapes, no voiceovers, and a very limited use of time-shifting narrative.
Now in customary fashion, I give you the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly(Weird):
– The acting. Everyone is on the top of their game here.
– The violence. When it happens, and youʼll know it when you see it, its glorious and colorful and vivid. And funny too.
– The comedy. Thereʼs a particularly hilarious scene with a mob of masked horseman that is gut-bustingly funny.
– The cameos. Bruce Dern has a very quick cameo (just in closeup), and he looks like a sleazy 1970s Hollywood producer. Why? I dunno why, but it made me laugh. Franco Nero has a memorable line. Tom Saviniʼs there without speaking. Amber Tamblyn pops up (as does her father, though I didnʼt see him). And this may be Quentin Tarantinoʼs best cameo yet. I donʼt see it ever being topped.
– The vengeance. You canʼt help but smile every time Django gets back at some evil white man. One scene he engages in some glorious whip-fu.
– The gunfights.
– Clearly a lot was cut from this. I donʼt have a lot of bad to say about this film except that you *know* there is more of it somewhere, and we didnʼt get it. For instance…
– M.C. Gainey as one of the Brittle Brothers that Schultz is searching for. In the trailers we see him and his brothers standing over Django and his wife (jn a presumed flashback). That scene is nowhere to be found in the finished film. And when we meet him in the present, he seems to have Bible pages stapled to his clothes. Why? We never find out (in this cut…) as his scene is too short for my taste.
– Jonah Hill. I believe his part was originally offered to Sacha Baron Cohen, but in this finished product, the role is so small that you wonder why it was offered to either one of them in the first place. Is there more footage hiding somewhere?
– Walton Goggins. I believe there was originally a role for Kevin Costner as a man who trains DiCaprioʼs slaves to fight, and when Costner couldnʼt do it, his character was merged with the already cast Walton Goggins. Is there any scene with Goggins training the Mandingos to fight? Is there a reference to him as a trainer? No, not at all… so what gives?
– The slave abuse. Boy that was hard to watch. Whippings, beatings, eye-gougings, dogs… Even worse knowing this shit actually happened.
– The language. If youʼre Spike Lee, you might have a big fucking problem with this movie. I donʼt think Iʼve ever seen a movie with more uses of the “N” word than this one. White people seeing Django on a horse- “Look at this n____!” Slaves seeing Django on a horse- “Whoʼs that n___?” Samuel L. Jackson seeing Django for the first time- “Whoʼs this n____ on a nag?!” But hey, thatʼs how people talked back then. Deal with it.
– James Remar. He has dual roles here, though the characters arenʼt related (as far as we know), and his second role has no dialogue that I can remember. This isnʼt Ugly or bad per se, just weird and a bit distracting. Why did he get two roles? Why him? And how did he appear to lose 7 pounds in his face between portraying the two?
– The zooms. In the opening credits and the first minute of the opening scene that follows, I think Tarantino utilizes the extreme zoom lens 5 times. The first two times made me laugh at their absurdity. The last two times had me rolling my eyes, afraid we were going to get this for the entire movie. Thankfully, I didnʼt notice a zoom again, and when it was used (like in DiCaprioʼs introduction), it was to good effect.
– The violence against horses. Poor horses. Funny that the first credit at the end after “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino” is the customary “NO HORSE WAS HARMED DURING THE MAKING OF THIS FILM” to make us all feel better.
– The One Scene. Okay, usually every Tarantino film has that *one* scene you can point to as being excellent and definitive of the film as a whole. I canʼt find it in this.
Inglorious Bastards had three scenes I can think of that were masterful examples of building tension: the opening scene, Landa and Shoshanna in the restaurant, and Michael Fassbender in the bar. Those scenes are great at building almost unbearable tension through the dialogue. Is there any scene like that in Django? Not at all. But what Django is good at is a steady build of tension throughout, one that keeps you wondering when everything is going to go wrong and who is going to pay for it when it does. I donʼt know if there is that “One Scene” in Django Unchained or not; its not as immediately noticeable as it was in Bastards. But I will say that when Django and Schultz get to Candieland (DiCaprioʼs plantation estate) and weʼre introduced to Samuel L Jacksonʼs servant character Stephen, the tension builds and doesnʼt relent.
If the worst thing I can say about the movie is that I know thereʼs more than what we saw, and that it did feel like a long film (it clocks in at 2 hours 44 minutes), then you know its gotta be good. Its Tarantino, you either like the guyʼs movies at this point or you donʼt. The typical Tarantino dialogue is there, but its restrained (Schultz has the most verbose dialogue but QT has other characters poke fun at this), and thereʼs nothing on par with the diner scene from Death Proof to be sure. Its a movie about righteous revenge with deserved violence in a historical setting and shot like a western. I was very pleased by the end, and I look forward to getting an extended cut in the future. Definitely a crowd pleaser on all levels. Iʼll gladly pay to see this again after Christmas.
Oh and Samuel L. Jackson? He perhaps gets the most laughs in the movie.
And – SLIGHT SPOILER – I canʼt say Iʼve ever wanted to see him die onscreen until now.
Until next time…