When it comes to Quentin Tarantino movies, one thing you can always count on is originality, something that’s always welcome in this age of endless remakes, sequels, franchises, franchise reboots and CGI action spectacles. The 49-year-old director has a mostly uncanny ability to take from older movies (mostly B grade, exploitation genre pictures) and mold and twist them together into something immensely unique and creative.
For his latest venture into cinema, “Django Unchained,” Tarantino has made a western, which actually isn’t very surprising. He’s already exercised his skill and creative energy in other genres. He made two hard-boiled crime films (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction”) a Blaxploitation crime picture (“Jackie Brown”), a two part Samurai and martial arts homage (“Kill Bill Volumes 1&2”), an homage to the grind house action flicks of the 70’s (“Death Proof’) and in his more recent masterpiece “Inglorious Basterds,” the war drama. It’s about time he’s made a full on western.
But of course “Django” isn’t like a normal western, normal isn’t in Tarantino’s DNA. The movie deals the very controversial topic of slavery in the Antebellum South but it doesn’t deal with it in the direct, thoughtful way Hollywood usually deals with the subject. The film is about slavery but it isn’t About Slavery. Instead it’s used as a backdrop to tell a Spaghetti Western style tale (mixed with a hint of Blaxploitation) about vengeance and rescue, injected with Tarantino’s usual brand of wild eccentricity. Like “Inglorious Basterds,” it’s a big, bold wildly entertaining fantasy that only someone like Tarantino would have the guts to make. Like all of his films, “Django” walks a thin line between comedy and drama, a very risky balance that for the most part pays off.
The hero of the story is Django (Jamie Foxx), who starts off as a scared trembling slave and eventually becomes a confident revolver wielding western hero. He’s freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), a German bounty hunter. The two embark on a journey across the south with the intent to free Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who’s been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner who makes his male slaves engage in one-on-one death matches (it’s known as Mandingo fighting).
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Jewish characters were given the opportunity to enact vicious revenge on the Nazis; in this movie Django is given the same opportunity except against the white oppressive slave drivers. There’s an amusing but satisfying scene early on where he whips a former slave driver into submission before shooting him. Foxx plays Django with cool, stern assurance, like any quintessential western hero.
Dr. King Schultz is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Landa (the malevolent but cunning Nazi that Waltz played in “Basterds”), except that Schultz is a full on good guy. Waltz plays him with such eloquence and ease. He’s deeply intelligent, walks into just about every situation with the utmost self-confidence. He’s never really fazed, he’s always thinking one step ahead. The only times he seems unconfident is in the presence of Calvin, who’s also intelligent and suave but also insane and sadistic. Calvin is the kind of cartoon villain that someone like DiCaprio can play easily, but he’s no less entertaining to watch.
The movie is expertly paced, Tarantino is able to keep it moving without it sagging but at the same time he gives his scenes ample time to play out. This is a Quentin Tarantino film so there are a few instantly recognizable elements. First off his screenplay is loaded with his trademark witty and intelligent dialogue. Secondly, his use of music, mainly Spaghetti Western variations (pre existing music and also a couple of songs composed for the film) to emphasize the drama or establish mood and tone.
There’s violence galore in “Django,” another standard in Tarantino Land. Two kinds exist. The first pertains to the more serious parts of the film (violence towards Broomhilda and innocent slaves, for example) and the other is the over the top, exaggerated comic book violence, like during the final shootout at the end. Whatever kind violence it is and however much there is Tarantino never uses it willy-nilly.
In regards to the first kind of violence he shows the audience just enough for us to feel the effect without over exploiting it. For instance, we get one short brutal scene showing Mandingo fighting and nothing more is seen after. When it comes to the other kind he has no problem showing the blood and gore and hyperbolic deaths in all their glory. He knows that that stuff is fake and cartoonish, whereas the stuff involving Mandingo fighting is much more shocking and touchy to a movie going audience. Tarantino achieves an oddly brilliant balance.
In the end “Django Unchained” is a Tarantino movie through and through. That means it won’t appeal to everyone. If you didn’t like him before chances are “Django” won’t change your mind. I get it, he’s a taste that not everyone responds to. At the very least however, beneath all of the Quentin-esque mayhem, he should be commended for taking on such a touchy subject in such a fresh and entertaining way.