Search Film Reviews

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Django Unchained Review

The Weinstein Co./Columbia Pictures
REVIEW by Joshua Handler

Django Unchained
2012, 165 minutes
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity 

"Adult supervision is required," says Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Quentin Tarantino's brave new film Django Unchained.  And he could not be more right as Django is brutal, gory, and twisted.  Not to mention gut-bustingly funny.  Django Unchained is Tarantino's latest film to take the best elements of a '60s or '70s fringe genre, put his own spin on it, and make it great.  The genre this time is the spaghetti western.  Spaghetti westerns were westerns made in Italy primarily during the 1960s.  Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci were arguably the most famous spaghetti western directors.  Leone made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Corbucci made Django, from which this film takes nothing but its title.  

Django Unchained takes place in 1858 in the deep South.  Tarantino wanted this not to we a western, but a "southern".  The film follows Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who teams up with a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), to find a vicious group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers.  In return for his help, Schultz will help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda from evil plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Mississippi.

Django is a really interesting film in that it is one of the first films to truly show an in depth, honest, brutal portrayal of slavery in Hollywood history.  Tarantino doesn't hold anything back in his depiction of the horrors of slavery.  He shows brandings, forced slave fights, dog attacks, and whippings, all in graphic detail.  Uncharacteristically of Tarantino, none of these are played for laughs.  Don't get me wrong, much of the violence in this film is played for laughs, but that which is is against the white plantation owners and workers.  The violence mentioned above is directed against African-American slaves and is extremely disturbing.  This was a very gutsy move of Tarantino, but I think it is great.  He doesn't use that violence as exploitation, but simply as a means to expose America to the true brutality that they want to forget.

Django is undeniably messy towards the end, but works on so many levels.  The acting, unsurprisingly, is top-notch from everyone.  The standout is Leonardo DiCaprio who turns in a performance that is not only his best to date, but one of the most frightening and menacing villains in recent memory.  DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is, like Waltz's Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, a charming, but vile villain who I just loved to hate.  He commands the screen every time he is onscreen.  I sometimes think DiCaprio is a little stiff when executing a dramatic performance as he was in J. Edgar, but here he was relaxed and comfortable.  He seemed like he was having a blast shedding his nice-guy image for this new face as the ultimate bad guy.

Jamie Foxx is surprisingly good in the lead as Django.  He, too, is charming, witty, and cool.  However, behind the coolness is a sense of shame and longing which Foxx shows with heartbreaking authenticity.  Christoph Waltz is Oscar-worthy as Dr. King Schultz.  Tarantino really knows how to get the best out of him.  He speaks the language of Tarantino like a natural and delivers every syllable perfectly.  While this seems like a bizarre piece of praise, it is not, as Tarantino's dialogue is written in a very particular way that, if not delivered correctly, could sound unnatural (in the Tarantino film's world).  Finally, we come to Samuel L. Jackson who steals nearly every scene he's in as Jackson, Candie's slave who is also his right hand man.  Jackson's facial expressions are pee-your-pants funny and the energy and charisma he brings here is a joy to watch.

Django Unchained contains all of the usual anachronistic music that Tarantino usually uses and contains the usual black humor.  There are some scene in Django that should not be funny, but I couldn't help but laugh.  And, as an homage to spaghetti westerns, Tarantino nails the style with everything from a new Morricone song to the dramatic extreme close-ups.  If you've seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and other films of that era, this film will be that much funnier.

Much as this is a typical Tarantino film, it is different in a couple of very noticeable ways.  One of them is that there is an emotional connection to Django and Broomhilda.  Tarantino's movies ride on their style and smarts normally (and this one does too), but with the added emotional romance element, I felt more connected to the characters which made the ending more satisfying (and if there's anything Tarantino knows how to do it is pull off one hell of an ending).  Another big difference, as mentioned,is the dead serious historical context.  After viewing Django, I really thought (and still am thinking) about the effect of slavery and racism on America and how it can still be felt in some ways today.  While trying to show a dark side of history, Tarantino never preaches or tries to convey some large message.  He just gives us the cold, honest facts and lets us make of them whatever we want.  That was Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's strength with Zero Dark Thirty: they never let a political message get in the way of the honest truth.  They let us, the audience, decide what to make of them.

While Django is most certainly a great film, it does have some issues.  One of the most glaring is the editing.  Fred Raskin took over for Tarantino's usual editor, Sally Menke, after her death a few years ago and it is very noticeable.  The film is not as tight as Inglourious Basterds or other Tarantino films and due to the extensive cuts made on the film to bring down the running time, there are some weird, seemingly out-of-place shots and transitions.  In addition, the film could have ended in many places, but didn't.  While the places it went were very interesting and fun, a little tightening wouldn't have hurt.  

Overall, while not the best film Tarantino has made, Django Unchained is still excellent and will satisfy most of his fans.  It is an honest, moving, brutal, and hilariously funny take on the spaghetti western set during our nation's darkest hour.  This should get a substantial amount of Oscar nominations come January.  A warning: if you are not a Tarantino fan, stay far away from this one.


No comments:

Post a Comment