Movie Review: Django Unchained
If you’ve seen Lincoln already, you’ve already seen one man’s approach to slavery. Now Django Unchained is another man’s approach to slavery that’s more what Quentin Tarantino had in mind and not what you’d expect.
The film starts with the Speck brothers walking a group of male slaves down across Texas in 1858, three years before the Civil War. Their journey is interrupted by Dr. King Schultz who appears to be a traveling dentist. He offers to buy one of the slaves, Django Freemen. Before the Specks can refuse Schultz shoots one of the Speck brothers to death, shoots the other leaving him in pain and frees the other slaves to let them kill the wounded Speck.
Schultz confesses to Django he’s no longer a dentist but a bounty hunter who kills fugitives for reward money whenever the opportunity arises. He especially chose Django because he can help identify his next targets, the three ruthless Brittle brothers. Schultz admits he hates slavery and offers Django to help with freedom, $75 and a horse as a reward. Django assists successfully in helping Schultz shoot down the Brittles.
Not only does Django get his promised rewards but Schultz hires him as his bounty hunting associate. This comes as Schultz learns that Django has a wife: Broomhilda ‘Hildy’ von Shaft who is also a slave now owned by a separate owner. Schultz is hoping making Django his associate will reunite him with Hildy. Schultz does a good job in training him and Django is fully ready with the shooting skills and the desire for blood. His first operation on Smitty Bacall is a success from hundreds of feet above off a cliff. Django and Schultz are successful in other bounty shootings too and soon learn Hildy is owned by plantation owner Calvin Candie. Once arriving as his plantation, Candyland, we learn Calvin is a charming but brutal man who has his male ‘mandingo’ slaves fight to the death for his entertainment pleasure.
The two try to pose as ‘mandingo’ purchasers to Candie however the purchase turns real when they witness a slave mauled to death by angry dogs. They then ask for Hildy as an addition. Candie agrees to the sale but it raises the suspicion of Candie’s staunch slave Stephen who suspects Django knows Hildy and is up to something with this sale. Upon the advise of Stephen, a drunken ruthless Candie gives Schultz a deal: Hildy for $12,000 or death. Schultz agrees and shoots Candie after the offer. A shootout occurs with Schultz shot and Django shooting many of and many of Candie’s men dead only to end when Stephen threatens to kill Hildy is he doesn’t surrender.
Django is sent to punishment by Stephen and Candie’s sister working as a coal miner worked to his death. That’s what Stephen thinks as Django is able to outsmart the slave drivers, kill them and take their dynamite. This comes for the set up at the end for Django’s revenge on Stephen and all those at the plantation. Even though most people know what the ending will be, it’s the style that it’s done in that’s the treat of the movie.
One thing about this movie is that it’s not supposed to be the answer to slavery. It’s not supposed to be even a version of how slavery should have been solved all along. What this movie is basically is Quentin doing what he does best: a revenge movie done in his style. I’ve been an admirer of him since Pulp Fiction. I remember when I first saw it near the end of 1994. I was a college student of the time and Pulp Fiction was a movie that impressed people of my generation. I came from a generation that was strongly anti-censorship and looked at commercialism in movies as a downgrade in creativity and an attempt to soften the authentic. When Pulp Fiction came out, we were impressed. Finally a movie where the director/writer has complete creative control and it excels. Finally a movie that takes filmmaking to new levels as filmmaking should. Finally a film that pushes envelopes as us Generation Xers in college felt all art should. Finally a movie that makes original pay off at the box office. Finally an independent movie that could make the Hollywood fare at the time look like a laughing stock. Finally a film that doesn’t censor itself and doesn’t bow down to pressures of ratings boards or family values groups and it excels. In the end, Pulp Fiction has been hailed by most as the best film of the 1990’s.
Eighteen years have passed since Pulp Fiction has been released. While most directors have had a flare last for a number of years only to flare out over time, Tarantino never did. He still delivers movies that know how to charm and even enchant. Also while it appears that there’s a lack of taking film in new directions right now and more interest in creating a box office winner, Tarantino is still one who dares to stand out, take risks and do things his way. One thing I’ve come to know of Quentin Tarantino’s movies over the years is that he aims to deliver a film in style. It’s seen very clear in the films he shows that he attempts to tell a story via film noir or blaxploitation or spaghetti western style. He wants to deliver a stylized story as he’s done in his past movies and he does it again here.
Another thing Quentin does in his films that he does again here is deliver a movie with stylized characters with eerily charming personalities and deliver their acting with style. We see it with the characters of Django Freeman, Dr. Schultz, Calvin Candie, Hildy and Stephen. All of them have their personalities in their likeable traits and their hateable traits. All also deliver in their stylized acting without coming off as ridiculous. Few times can an actor get away with doing such a showy stylized character in movie performances without looking ridiculous or over-the-top. It’s here in Quentin Tarantino movies where it works the best. It’s funny because when I learned Django was about a slave getting revenge, I was expecting the actors to play characters with mannerisms from the 1850’s. Not in a Tarantino movie.
Also noticeable is how Quentin works to avoid the sentimental and touching in his films and it’s seen again here. The two where I got the biggest sense of this was firstly the scene where Django shot Smitty Bacall from a cliff and we see Smitty’s son coming to him on the ground. There’s no scene of the son’s reaction. The second was the scene where Hildy saw Django after being away from him for so long. I was expecting Hildy to be in tears and embrace him. Instead she faints at the sight of him. Not what I expected but should’ve in a Tarantino movie.
If there’s one glitch to comment about the movie, it’s that it’s yet another revenge flick from Tarantino. Back in the 90’s his films had the focus of the criminal mind. I was good with that. In the 21st Century, his movies have been focused on the theme of revenge, from the Kill Bill series to the Death Proof part of the Grindhouse movie to Inglourious Basterds. I didn’t have a problem with that because it was done entertainingly and even enchantingly at times in some scenes. Here it was a case where I went with the feel “Not another revenge story from Quentin Tarantino.” I’ll admit that it was a very stylishly done movie that delivers in entertainment value but seeing Tarantino toy around with the theme of revenge once again gives me the impression he’s masturbating to that theme a little too gratuitously.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say in my review that this is the movie that is the turning point for my respect for Tarantino. In fact I still consider him one of the best filmmakers out right now. I would however like to see him work with other themes too. Like many people, I feel one trait that makes for a great director is one that can do many genres well. Steven Spielberg is an example of a director that can do a multitude of film genres. Martin Scorsese may be famous for gangster films but he showed he can do other styles of film well too, even family movies. Ang Lee is another filmmaker that has demonstrated versatility. I would like to see Tarantino become more versatile in the films he delivers. This may sound odd coming from a fan of his movies but I’d like to see him try it.
Okay, enough of me both praising and sacking Quentin. The film’s acting consists of character acting that knows how to be stylish without coming across as ridiculously showy. Jamie Foxx was impressive as Django Freeman. The only problem is that he was constantly upstaged by the supporting players. Christoph Waltz delivered excellently as King Schultz with all of his charming arrogance who somehow had a heart. Leonardo DiCaprio also was phenomenal as the charmingly hateable Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson was excellent as the hateable Stephen: the former slave who now owns and beats his own. He makes you want his payback in the end. Kerry Washington was also good as Hildy but her character lacked the depth and style the leading male characters had. The sets were perfect in fitting the time. Even the springy tooth on Dr. Schultz’s coach looked less ridiculous over time. The music mix was also excellent. Another trait of Tarantino’s movies is the inclusion of music that enhances, stylizes and even enchants in the movie’s story and Quentin delivered again. It was a mix of original music and of songs from decades past that blend like magic into the film.
One would assume a movie like this would be one to cause controversy. And they’re right. This movie has had people speaking out against it on the subject of either the violence or the subject of slavery or the use of racial slurs. The most outspoken critic has been director Spike Lee. Spike has been critical of Quentin Tarantino in the past for the use of a certain racial slur in Pulp Fiction. Spike hasn’t really spoken about the use of that slur in Django but he has spoken about the movie itself and has declared it: “an insult to my ancestors.” This is particularly questionable since there are African American actors in leading roles. If they felt it was an insult to their ancestors, they would have refused to be in the movie. Besides I’ve always gotten the impression Spike Lee wants the world to think he’s the voice of all of black America simply because of Do The Right Thing. Fortunately the controversy hasn’t generated too much news overload.
It’s interesting while Lincoln showcased justice given to slavery, Django Unchained is about one slave’s revenge. Ironic how both are released in the same year and both have expectations to win the Best Picture Oscar. As for Django, it’s starting to feel redundant to see another Tarantino revenge flick but his stylized filmmaking compensates for that and delivers a winner of a movie for the most part. Not for all to see but it will entertain those that do see it.