“Django Unchained” Movie Review

     Quentin Tarantino returns to cinema with “Django Unchained”, one of the best films of the director’s illustrious career and also one of the best of 2012.  As I expected, Tarantino scores with a brilliant mix of original filmmaking, dialogue, acting, and story telling.  There are only a select few directors today that are making films of this caliber, yet I would argue nobody is making films like “Django Unchained”.  Not now and never before.  It’s as if Tarantino now looks to rewrite history by filtering various events through his already established parallel universe.  In all of his films, this universe is never thought as one each of us couldn’t exist in ourselves, and yet you still get that cinematic old time feeling you can only get from watching the films of yesteryear. 

     While there are many hallmarks which make a Tarantino film, he’s never short on surprises either.  In “Django Unchained”, we are told the setting begins in Texas about 2 years before the beginning of the Civil War, which means it is during the time of slavery.  Frequent Tarantino critic and fellow director, Spike Lee, recently told the media that slavery was a “holocaust” and condemned Tarantino for his handling of the subject matter (though he refuses to see the film).  I think it’s a good idea to address that issue now before getting to the film itself.  Make no mistake, Tarantino has a point to make about slavery and he does so with a story that jams a proverbial knife directly into everything slavery was at that time.  The characters who populate “Django Unchained” speak using the common words spoken by slave owners, slaves, and people in general in the mid 1800s. To make a film like this and to have it any other way would mean ignoring the truth and in my eyes, the more people who know the truth the better.  Yes, the characters continuously utter racial slurs and that’s because they are indeed quite racist.  Not unlike Tarantino’s previous two films, “Inglorious Basterds” and “Kill Bill”, our lead here takes it upon himself to gain the ultimate in revenge against all that is evil in the film.

     Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave being marched to auction when the convoy is stopped by a man posing as a dentist, but is actually Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter.  Schultz is looking for Django because he can identify the Brittle brothers, three men who are wanted dead or alive and bring a huge reward either way.  Schultz aquires Django and begins to teach him his trade as a bounty hunter.  King makes it clear he doesn’t buy into slavery and immediately declares Django free and ultimately they become partners.  Their exploits lead them to “Candie Land”, a plantation owed by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and home to the famous “mandingos”, who are slaves that are forced to fight to the death just for the entertainment of rich white men.  Unknown to Candie, Django and Schultz are there to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda, who is owned by Candie.

     In and of itself, the story sounds simple, yet Tarantino spends 2 hours and 46 minutes fleshing out each and every character.  Tarantino’s scripts are always highlighted by intense conversation which tends to reveal each characters likes, dislikes, and more importantly, their motives.  DiCaprio steals each and every scene he is in and brings Calvin Candie to life in a way that truly conveys how people in his position likely acted back then.  It’s as if it was just a simple way of life.  He runs his plantation like a shrewd and cunning business man, but when appropriate he reverts to a likable family man.  Candie can go from what appears to be a polite, self respecting man of high society and turn at the drop of a hat to an evil, out of control sociopath. 

     Tarantino veteran Samuel L. Jackson gives DiCaprio a run for his money when we meet Stephen, Candie’s loyal house slave.  It’s clear Stephen is a slave, yet he seems to accept his status and relishes in his role as the boss of the other slaves.  We never really see Candie mistreating any of the slaves during the film and that’s because it is Stephen’s job to take care of any disciplinary issues.  Many of the aforementioned racial slurs are uttered by Stephen as he seemingly has no respect for anyone but his master.  Jackson is a gem in this role and it may be his best since playing Jules Winnfield in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. 

     In another Oscar worthy role, Christoph Waltz succeeds in every way imaginable as Schultz.  When we first meet him, he makes it clear he has a job to do and his only interest is getting it done.  As the film moves on from the initial scenes, you can see Schultz take a genuine interest in Django as he is proving himself everyday to have the necessary skills to be a successful bounty hunter.  This is where it was important for Waltz to sell the mentor role to the audience.  When you remember the time this story takes place in, you realize the likelihood of a white man doing what Shultz does for Django would be slim and none.  Yet, through Tarantino’s expert screenwriting, Waltz is able to demonstrate his reasoning as each and every motive is spelled out in a number of scenes.  Schultz may be the most intriguing and multidimensional character in the film and possibly the most well acted.

     This brings me to Jamie Foxx.  First off, we’re talking about an Oscar winning actor and you know there are very specific reasons why he was cast in this role by Tarantino.  The Django character is the driving force of the entire story with each and every occurrence involving him in some way.  Foxx gives a steady performance, with an undercurrent of anger and an obvious motive of revenge and survival.  It’s clear from the beginning the Django character has been through a lot and thus he becomes a natural during the stressful situations created by being a bounty hunter.  Those skills also come in quite handy in the third act when all hell breaks loose.

     In a similar manner to the fate in which Hitler and his cronies rightfully suffered in “Inglorious Basterds”, Tarantino directs his villains into a similar fatal funnel with a dash of the Crazy 88s sequence from “Kill Bill” mixed in for good measure.  In Tarantino’s eyes, those who were responsible for the holocaust got exactly what they deserved and I’m here to say those who are responsible for the despicable acts of slavery in “Django Unchained” get exactly what they deserve.  Like his previous films, Tarantino mixes comedy and violence to come up with a recipe for what is a very entertaining film.  I felt like I was watching what was going on through a window rather than a movie screen.  I felt like I was there.  The authenticity of “Django Unchained” seems to transport the viewer to a different time and the realism is something that needs to be witnessed.

     At this point, it wouldn’t be right to talk about where “Django Unchained” falls in terms of rank in the Tarantino filmography.  That debate will come later after this and many of his other films stand the test of time.  “Pulp Fiction” is in the AFI Top 100 and if I were to measure “Django Unchained” against it, you may only be looking at a few percentage points separating the two.  Expect nominations this season for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and possibly Best Director as well.  As far as the acting categories go, I fear they may cancel each other out since DiCaprio, Jackson, and Waltz all deserve supporting nods.  Perhaps the film will win in the Ensemble category at the SAG awards like “Basterds” did.  Many times, I’ve wondered after seeing a Tarantino film how he would top this.  I believe now, he will find a way.  All of the best directors in history have and he is certainly one of them.