Title: Django Unchained
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar
You can always count on Quentin Tarantino to go big and take chances to offer up some of the most wildly engaging, entertaining and all-around enjoyable experiences cinema’s got to offer.
Amidst a treacherous trek across the country, Django (Jamie Foxx) and his new slave owners are intercepted by the bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The next kill on Schultz’s list are the notorious Brittle Brothers, but he doesn’t know what they look like. However, Django does. After a little unorthodox bartering, Schultz makes off with Django, but not as his slave, rather as an associate.
Django rides by Schultz’s side, learning the ways of the bounty hunter and helping Schultz complete his gigs. In turn, Schultz offers to help track down and rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from her new owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Trouble is, Candie isn’t a particularly nice guy, and he’ll never sell Broomhilda to Schultz if Schultz rides up to the estate alongside a black man and simply asks. If Schultz and Django are going to get her back, they’ll need to make Candie think he’s got the upper hand in an incredible deal.
After a series of bold title cards paired with pristine imagery and a tune tailor made for the film, Tarantino hurls you into a pitch perfect first encounter between Schultz and Django, an opening that rivals the start of “Inglourious Basterds.” Waltz’s performance and dialogue are spot on, making the scene an ideal introduction to the character and situation. Foxx barely says a word, but his actions and reactions paired with Waltz’s booming show are more than enough to get you on track.
The first half of “Django Unchained” is bounty hunting 101 and it really is as much fun as it sounds. Thanks to an appropriate presentation of Django’s formerly dismal situation, watching him saddle up alongside Schultz is immensely fulfilling. The only snag in the character’s arc is his transition from lowly slave to cocky killer. Tarantino does make very clear points to show that Django is growing more comfortable with his new status and occupation, but the transformation isn’t particularly smooth. The story unfolds over a lengthy period of time so, sure, much can happen from month to month, but when considering the character in the context of the film, his transition is jagged.
Waltz’s Schultz, however, offers up a far subtler change and one that actually functions to ground Django. While Django is moving from one end of the spectrum to the other, Schultz begins as an honorable bounty hunter and ends as an honorable bounty hunter; it’s his sentiments and passion for his goals that change. The closer Schultz grows to Django and the more he learns about the people they’re up against, the more impassioned he becomes about rescuing Broomhilda, making the mission more engaging and also making Tarantino’s presentation of slavery much more than a bombastic recreation for the screen. From beginning to end, the wheels inside Schultz’s head are turning.
On the other hand, Tarantino’s choice to make Broomhilda little more than Django’s daydream eye candy is baffling. She’s pretty, she can speak German and we’re told time and time again that Django is deeply in love with her, but Broomhilda never actually does anything to earn any devotion from the audience. If you care about her well being it’s because you care about Django, not Broomhilda herself.
However, Tarantino steps back into truly original and intriguing territory with Calvin Candie. Rather than propose the arch villain right from the start, Tarantino offers up foes in a video game-like format; take down tougher and tougher villains until you reach the boss, making Candie the ultimate evil the moment he steps on screen. Candie enters in a wicked fashion, doing business with Schultz while enjoying his favorite sport, watching two slaves beat each other to death. No, this doesn’t happen in a big fancy arena or in the front yard with a crowd hollering. This battle takes place in a small, lavishly decorated room, right in front of a glowing fire, as Candie and the other contender’s owner observe from mere inches away. It’s so eccentric it’s exciting, yet so twisted it’s abhorrent, making Candie one of the most terrible people you’ve ever laid eyes on while somewhat charming you with his eerie class and charm.
It’s a good thing Candie is such an over-the-top character with a monumental screen presence because Samuel L. Jackson comes close to stealing his spotlight as the Candy Plantation’s longtime #1 slave, Stephen. Stephen’s a curious character through and through. He’s a little off, his mind possibly giving way to his age, but because Candie holds him in high regard, his power on the plantation somewhat reflects the power given to Django by Schultz, making them equal threats in very different respects.
When the players do boil over, in true Tarantino fashion, we get some of the most violent, thrilling and vicious fight sequences out there. Bloody flowers, an excess of gunshots and long-range kills make for some brilliant brutality, but all the gory nuances and earlier showdowns are entirely overshadowed by one absolutely unforgettable bloodbath – a bloodbath that only falls second to “The Cabin in the Woods” elevator massacre as the most vicious thrill of the year.
While “Django Unchained” does boast excellent visuals, a rousing story and stellar performances, the film would never have been what it is had it not been for the top notch editing and music. Almost all of the film’s laughs and suspense come from perfect cuts and to-the-second music cues. The score is so bold even a single instrument can catch attention, but because the tunes are always used in a way that serves the story, tone and emotion, it’s never distracting rather a noticeably enjoyable driving force.
“Django Unchained” is a solid production as it is, but you can’t help but to wonder how things would have shaped up had it been both Django and Schultz’s story, equally. There is a bit of a lull as we make our way from the bounty hunting lessons to rescuing Broomhilda. Had Tarantino lightened up on the Django/Broomhilda melodrama and given us more access to Schultz’s scheming, we might have been able to bypass that post-midpoint drag and power through all 165 minutes.
Clearly what’s done is done and that’s not how the story plays out, but even so, “Django Unchained” is an almost entirely enthralling piece, oozing with thoughtful gore, a wildly unique style, and some curious and creative characters all of which could only come together so well through notably cohesive filmmaking.