Django Unchained is the gleefully violent story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a German bounty hunter named Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to track down and kill some slave owners and other bad men, then convinces Schultz to help him find and free his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington, and yes, that’s really her character’s name), from plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It’s also QT’s best film in years, and one of the best of 2012.
Set in the pre–Civil War South (1858, to be exact), Django is a blaxploitation spaghetti western that revels both in its retro feel (the classic Columbia logo at the film’s start and the theme song from the 1966 movie Django playing over the credits set the scene) and its anachronistic self-awareness.
The first hour lays the foundation, as Schultz trains his new mentee in the ways of “getting dirty,” and talks about how he’s “gonna make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit.” Django, still smarting from his lost years, doesn’t quite know what to make of his liberator, but he’s easily convinced to go along for the ride: “You kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”
These two make quite the pair: Django, the cool, collected one, and Schultz the more charismatic, literate one. Suffice it to say, Tarantino makes the most of the mismatch in his screenplay and in his imagery.
It turns out, Django is a natural at this bounty hunting business, something we learn early on when he gets his first taste of retribution. As Django goes to work on a plantation worker, whipping him mercilessly, Tarantino films it from below — all the better to show Django’s dominance — and slows down the action, with the sounds of the whip packing a real punch. Ouch. This boy’s got sand.
And yet, part of the genius of the film is that it celebrates violence in a way that makes viewers complicit in its legitimacy. These people Django and Schultz are after? They deserve it. Oh, do they.
Few more than Candie, who lives on a plantation known as “Candyland.” Among his more reprehensible acts, Candie trains slaves to beat each other to death — it’s called “mandingo fighting.” DiCaprio’s performance, playfully evil, captures Candie’s wide-eyed delight at such things (the way Waltz’s character did in Inglorious Basterds), and Leo goes all in.
Candie is the more obvious bad guy, and Leo gets to give the most showy performance. But it’s his house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who may actually be the more evil character.
Stephen knows his place, and thinks all slaves (freed or not) should, too. He doesn’t like Django, and seeks only to undermine him and his attempts to run away with Broomhilda. It’s a world-view battle royale between the free man and the man who doesn’t think his people should be free.
Jackson, despite all that old-age makeup, can’t help but sound contemporary, and his modern-day sensibility makes Stephen that much more villainous.
No one will accuse QT of treating his subject delicately. There’s liberal use of the N-word throughout, a horrific scene where dogs tear a slave apart, and another scene where Broomhilda is put in a hot box as punishment. It all only makes us root for Django more.
Not everyone gets a beat-down: There’s a hysterical bit early on involving Don Johnson (dressed to look like Colonel Sanders), Jonah Hill, and an early version of the Klan in which the hooded members try to do their thing, but are derailed because, well, the hoods are blocking their vision and “it would be nice to see.” The incessant complaining juxtaposed with their racist intentions makes for good comedy.
And yet, to say everyone gets what’s coming to them is an understatement. The film’s climax, awesome and deliriously bloody, is so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh. Oh, and just when you think it’s over, there’s more. And more. And then, when it is over, there’s a look of such pleasure on Django’s face as he rides away that you can’t help but know justice has been served.
It should be noted that underscoring much of the action in the film are such expertly chosen songs as Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” and new tracks like John Legend’s “Who Did That to You?”
Additionally, kudos to cinematographer Robert Richardson, who makes the whole thing look great.
Django is a completely audacious, sadistic pleasure of a movie, and I loved just about every minute of it. That’s why I’m giving it an A–.
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