Review: Django Unchained – Southern fried spaghetti western
With eight feature films now under his belt, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has yet to misstep in his mission to re-envision and pay tribute to the film genres that he loves. He infuses his efforts with hip pop culture energy and skews them just enough to keep them fresh for today’s audiences. His new film, Django Unchained, has a bold unexpected narrative and all of the uncompromising ingenuity you expect from a Tarantino film, plus something to say about the history of slavery in the United States.
For my money, Django Unchained is the perfect companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as both movies have captivating lengthy dialogue, they are both set in the same era (with Django Unchained taking place just before the Civil War) and both films are centered around the ugliness of human bondage. But where Lincoln is about a group of white politicians bickering about the abolishment of slavery, Django Unchained is about a black man taking matters into his own hands to free himself and his wife – by whatever means necessary.
The multi-talented Jamie Foxx plays the titular Django (with a silent ‘D,’ in case you haven’t seen the trailers), who is freed from his chains, in typical Tarantino fashion, by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds), a dentist who has concluded that bounty hunting pays more than teeth removal. The scholarly Doctor is chasing a group of killers that he hopes to collect the bounty on and he thinks Django can help identify the group of men he is after.
While in pursuit of the bounty, the two unlikely partners become friends and Schultz vows to teach Django his bounty-hunting trade and help him to locate and free his wife from her enslavement. They eventually track Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), to a plantation called Candyland, which is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave-owner who specializes in turning his male slaves into Mandingo fighters and his female slaves into prostitutes.
An interesting note to keep in mind while watching this film is that Tarantino has said that the characters Broomhilda von Shaft and Django are the great-great-great-grandparents of Shaft, from the seventies Blaxploitation films – and it’s details like this that make Tarantino’s films so much fun.
Through a battle of wits, the Doctor & Django trick their way into Candie’s mansion and make contact with Broomhilda, but before they can secure her freedom, the slave owner’s man-servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), uncovers their plot. Buckets of blood are spilled before the film is finished in what is probably the most gruesome Tarantino flick to date (and that’s saying something.)
Django Unchained clocks in at about 165 minutes, so as you can imagine, my description of this film’s plot barely touches the surface; but rest assured this movie is jam packed with all sorts of Quentin Tarantino goodness including cameos by Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini, Franco Nero (the original Django from the 1966 film that inspired Tarantino), Tom Wopat and yes, of course, the eccentric director himself makes two very memorable appearances – but can only be seen in one – stay sharp.
Fans of Tarantino’s meticulously crafted soundtracks will be thrilled with the choices he has included in this film, which contains new songs and instrumentals as well as several classics – including cuts from the old spaghetti westerns that Django Unchained pays tribute to. I especially loved the use of Ennio Morricone’s Sister Sara’s Theme from one of my favorite westerns, Two Mules for Sister Sara.
If blood, ultra-violence or excessive use of the ‘N-word’ makes you squeamish, then you will want to avoid this film at all costs. This movie is a hardcore look at slavery, but it is still a very fun and funny movie to watch; if you feel that slavery should only be examined in stoic serious terms, then you will probably not be happy with this movie – then again, keep in mind that almost every white man is killed in this film, most often in hilariously painful ways.
The performances in this movie are fantastic all around and the actors are obviously having a blast working with Tarantino’s always incredible script. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio all shine in their roles, but it’s Samuel L. Jackson who steals the show as the head-slave and man-servant of the Candyland mansion. Will someone give this man a #@!%$*-%^@#ing Oscar already!
Tarantino calls his new flick a “southern” rather than a “western,” as most of the action takes place in the Deep South; but the movie is undeniably a tribute to the spaghetti westerns of yesteryear (Italian films set in America’s old west), films like Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone and the aforementioned Django by Sergio Corbucci; and Django Unchained’s unrelenting brutality and gratuitous blood splatter also owes a debt to American westerns like The Wild Bunch, by Sam Peckinpah, which broke new ground for the genre in 1969 with its ultra-violence.
Django Unchained is certainly not the feel-good movie of the holiday season (although if you are a Tarantino fan you’re going to be feeling pretty dang good after watching it), but it is one of the best movies of the year and I can’t wait to see which genre Mr. Tarantino tackles next. Grade: 9/10