Worth A Look: 22.5%
Pretty Bad: 2.5%
Total Crap: 2.5%
3 reviews, 22 user ratings
by Brett Gallman
Quentin Tarantino has circled the spaghetti western genre throughout his career; ever since he had Michael Madsen echo the infamous ear-severing scene from “Django,” he’s skirted around the rambunctious, lawless, and blood-soaked frontiers of his Italian idols. With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino not only hits the trail—he blazes through it with an incendiary, savage take on the genre that results in the most righteously indignant spaghetti western ever made.Like much of Tarantino’s work, this is a gumbo dish that’s composed of various ingredients; however, the main course is unmistakably spaghetti, albeit southern fried and basted in a black-hearted absurdity that reconfigures and explodes both the cinematic and actual Old South. It seems appropriate that Tarantino’s first proper Western truly tackles the genre; whereas his previous efforts at genre-blending sometimes feel like window-dressing for pastiche, “Django Unchained” explores the Western in a truly subversive fashion.
"Once Upon a Time in The Old South"
We’ve seen Tarantino subvert genre expectations before, but “Django Unchained” is an incredible exploration of a genre that often codified a historic era into something easily digestible and identifiable by familiar signposts of cowboys, Indians, lawmen, outlaws, white hats and black hats. The spaghetti counterparts often muddled the formula with its anti-heroes and air of moral ambivalence before finally confirming a sort of tough, rugged moral code, and “Django Unchained” isn’t much different on the surface.
In fact, Tarantino finds an inspired pairing with the genre, which was already politically and morally conscious (even the original “Django” wedges its antihero between warring, racist factions during a civil war), with the American south. Set two years before the Civil War, the film wallows in the era’s ugliness from the start. Unlike his original namesake, this Django (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t hail from a mysteriously tragic background; instead, we find him in the bonds of slavery during the opening scene, where he’s rescued by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a fast-talking bounty hunter looking to collect on a trio of brothers that only Django can identify. In exchange for his eventual freedom and a reunion with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django agrees to become Schultz’s partner, and Tarantino sets up a buddy-bounty hunter flick that quickly shifts gears when the Brittle Brothers find themselves lying in a bloody heap less than an hour into the proceedings.
Whether or not this particular subversion was by design or not (Tarantino has reportedly edited the film down from a nearly four-hour runtime), it feels so typically Tarantino—he’s waited for so long to do a spaghetti western, and he comes out with guns blazing by staging a number of awesome and spectacularly violent set-pieces that allow him to embrace the exploitation roots he’s always been so fond of (right down to the silly Italian whip-pans and zooms). “Django Unchained” is undeniably cool and swaggers with a boisterous energy that immediately marks it as one of the most purely badass examples of its type, full of witty catch-phrases and the flamboyance expected of Tarantino.
And then the film almost abruptly settles down after Tarantino breezes through the duo’s first winter together, a scene that visually echoes “The Great Silence,” another Sergio Corbucci effort that arguably shadows “Django Unchained” even more than “Django” itself. For all his bluster and pastiche, Tarantino has always succeeded because he’s always found fascinating, compelling subjects at the center of his work; after all, this is the guy who made a four hour epic out of a woman’s seemingly simple quest for vengeance. Like “Kill Bill,” “Django Unchained” works because of its voluminous, rich world-building, and the film still sizzles even when its director isn’t trying to be overtly cool.
In this respect, Tarantino’s maturation has never been more evident; without the benefit of using obvious pop culture references as a crutch, his dialogue and characterizations sing with a certain authenticity that has escaped many of his previous protagonists. “Django Unchained” features a duo that’s revealed to be remarkably human once Tarantino peels back their standard-issue gunslinger veneer. It’s almost as if Tarantino builds them up to the iconic, pseudo-indestructible status of their spaghetti forbearers only to tear them down spiritually as they find themselves wandering through a hellish antebellum that’s like a nightmarish cacophony of “Song of the South” and “Blazing Saddles.” Tarantino cleverly inverts the gunslinger’s position here; whereas Clint Eastwood might have sauntered into an untamed wilderness as a larger-than-life outsider, Shultz and Django simply represent the only shred of decency and humanity to be found in this cartoonish world of mandingo fights and callous servitude.
With so much loudness and a distinct lack of subtlety abounding throughout “Django,” both Waltz and Foxx’s restrained turns are wonderfully calculated counterbalances. Waltz centers the film with an incredible performance that threatens to steal the show from the title character, particularly during his introduction, where he’s presented as an heir to the eccentric, mercurial characters played by Klaus Kinski. He’s no joke, of course, but Waltz initially plays him with a superhuman swagger that belies the complexities rumbling beneath. His bounty hunts come with a punchline that finds him meticulously recounting the letter of the law; underneath his quick trigger and quicker mouth, there’s a well-mannered lawman who takes a utilitarian approach to his work.
It’s not immediately apparent, but “Django Unchained” is quite concerned with Schultz’s realization that such an approach is a fool’s errand. The bulk of the film involves his and Django’s attempt to legally free Broomhilda by posing as slave-traders, and Tarantino trades in smoking pistols for a measured, conversational tact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable as his heroic duo descends into the hell that is Candyland, the plantation lorded over by Calvin J. Candie, a sickeningly genteel southern gentleman played to the height of absurdity by Leonardo DiCaprio. His performance isn’t just striking because it’s Leo DiCaprio as we’ve never quite seen him before, playing a despicable, pseudo-incestuous slave owner, but also because there’s just enough raw authenticity to the character; he might be over-the-top, but Calvin Candie certainly rings more true than antiquated depictions of the debonair southern man.
One of the film’s pivotal moments involves Candie and Schultz, and it’s this incredible breaking point where Tarantino’s aim finally becomes clear. Positioned as a German outsider who disapproves of slavery but gives into the system to work it to his advantage, Schultz (pointedly named Dr. King Schultz, of course) feels like the classic Western outsider who finds himself suddenly fighting for a cause. Tarantino isn’t one for overwrought sentimentality, of course, so this conflict largely plays internally, with Waltz masterfully revealing a man besieged with a moral conflict he never expected to confront. No flowery speeches or overcooked drama accompany this; instead, the whole thing just sort of simmers under your nose until it comes to an explosive, bloody boil. By the end of the film, Schultz is almost like an incredibly warm father figure, and it’s almost inconceivable that he’s brought to life by the same guy who played the sociopathic Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Where does all of this leave Django himself? The film does oddly sideline him and Broomhilda for a bit of a stretch, but it does so in almost knowing fashion, as if Tarantino were nodding to the preponderance of treacly narratives that have championed white liberators. Tarantino and Foxx have Django evolve in an opposite direction from his partner; whereas Schultz is presented as the stock, badass bounty hunter that softens, Django is a doe-eyed, babe-in-the-woods whose innocence (and ignorance) is played for laughs until he has to harden himself into a laconic badass. This leaves Foxx with the tricky task of maintaining the character’s essential humanity as it gets buried beneath a cool, sunglasses-clad façade. Foxx wisely resists the urge to relish it too much, at least until he’s finally unleashed during the film’s final act, where he claims it as his own.
It’s probably a bit reductive to say that the film is heavily bookended by its spaghetti western tropes, but Tarantino’s eventual return to the sensational violence and bloody vengeance of that genre by film’s end also functions as a fascinating reworking of it. If Schultz is Dr. King, a man who attempts to civilly work within the system to attain liberation, then Django might represent the more militaristic approach of Malcolm X, and it’s contextualized within the boundaries of a spaghetti western that makes it the unquestionably justifiable. “Django Unchained” arguably shakes off the perceived moral ambiguities of many spaghetti westerns and instead presents a black and white world often glimpsed in more “traditional” westerns. The good guys are unmistakably good, while nearly every bad guy is overbearingly, cartoonishly evil.
However, “Django Unchained” again feels more honest than those westerns too—there’s nothing sanitary about it, and it certainly never flinches. Tarantino doesn’t just pick at the archaic scabs those films left behind, preferring instead to poke, prod, and squeeze every bit of unsightly puss out of them by exposing the disturbing implications that often went unsaid. He shouts them from the rooftops here. “Django Unchained” can hardly be considered subtle, and it’s another unabashed attempt to reclaim history by subjecting it to the whims of fantasy; this is the Old South as it was, wasn’t, and perhaps should have been all at once. That it’s been released in the shadow of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” feels appropriate since that film similarly centers on its title character’s attempt to forcibly defeat slavery within the confines of the law. “Django Unchained” isn’t beholden to history but to its genre, leaving Tarantino to indulge in the brilliant marriage of spaghetti justice with an age that was sorely in need of it.
Ultimately, “Django Unchained” is nothing more than an ultra-bloody and savage update of the Broomhilda legend that Schultz relates to Django; it’s a fairy tale that manages to trade in both whimsy and brutality without lapsing into unfeeling parody. It’s a biting satire that indicts the Old South by dressing it in clown’s clothing (or, at one point, the Klan’s clothing in one of the film’s most darkly hilarious scenes) and provocatively plays it as a reverse minstrel show at times. Forget refusing to pull punches: by the time the film ends, Tarantino has worn his knuckles down to the bone, and he spares no one from his wrath, be it the shit-kicking plantation owners like Big Daddy (played with magnificent panache by Don Johnson) or weasely overseers (Walton Goggins is an especially abhorrent one).
“Django Unchained” sounds like heavy stuff, and it is; it joins “The Great Silence” as one of the great socially conscious Westerns, and, like that film, this one exposes a cruel injustice born out of socio-political ills (but, again, Tarantino refuses to play by history’s script, which makes his “Django” a great B-side to “Silence”). Despite this, it never feels too heavy. At nearly three hours long, it’s certainly dense, but it’s far from ponderous; as this is his seventh feature, it almost feels perfunctory to note that Tarantino’s form and style are meticulously crafted, but it is worth noting how effortless and purely cinematic “Django Unchained” is.
Riotously entertaining from start to finish, the film is marked by astonishing displays of violence where squibs don’t splatter so much as they erupt, a tic that sounds more puerile than it actually is since it’s warranted. Other typical Tarantino stuff is on point, from the musical choices to the references (I want to say that he even sneaks in a reference to rival gunslinger Sartana at one point), and he unsurprisingly convinces Samuel L. Jackson to show up and actually act beyond his token Sam Jackson persona as Stephen, the horrible, brown-nosing house slave at Candyland. One of the most purely vile characters Tarantino has ever created, Stephen is a crotchety old servant that operates as a fly in the ointment, not only for the characters but also the world exposed by the film. Like his white masters, Stephen is played broadly and has been conditioned to abide by their twisted worldview; arguably, he’s the most evil character in the film, an intriguing wrinkle that reveals the film’s sneaky complexity.Dozens of films have been graced with the “Django” title since Corbucci’s original film, but Tarantino’s earns the moniker and more; while “Django Unchained” is a loving tribute to the films that inspired it, it moves beyond simple homage by cementing itself as a masterful expression of seething rage and poignant humanity within its pulpy confines.
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originally posted: 12/30/12 18:01:40