Thursday, May 30, 2013

Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher
Running Time: 165 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Each time Quentin Tarantino comes out with a new film I find myself saying that this will be the one where I've finally had it. I'll say he's gone the revenge fantasy route too times many times, overwrites, casts the same people, fetishizes violence and music and seems more interested in making his movies "cool" than having them work. Then it's released and all those things end up being mostly true. And it doesn't even matter. It's still the greatest thing out there. He gets away with this because there's only one Quentin and no one else out there is remotely capable of doing what he does, even if many have tried in the 90's, only to embarrass themselves.

Tarantino's writing is so idiosyncratic it's some kind of  miracle any actor can effectively deliver it and maybe even more of one that his crazy vision can be translated onto the screen, even by the person responsible for it. Django Unchained is his highest-grossing movie to date and also his longest, clocking in at nearly 3 hours to make it the longest of the year's nine Best Picture nominees. And it feels it. Yet, that doesn't matter either because it seems as if you're too glued to the screen to even care and on the receiving end of at least two or three movies for the price of one.

Set in the Deep South in 1858, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is suddenly given a shot at freedom when he's rescued by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter who grants him that freedom in exchange for helping him track down the Brittle Brothers, with whom Django has a brutal history. Feeling responsible for the man, Schultz takes him on as his apprentice, showing him the ropes of bounty hunting and even supplying him with a new wardrobe.

Schultz's ultimate act of generosity is in helping Django rescue his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her cruel but charismatic owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose "Candyland" plantation is a home to slaves being forced to fight to the death for entertainment in "Mandingo" fights. Manipulating their way into Candie's good graces, Schultz and Django must find a way to outsmart him and his right-hand house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). But escaping with Broomhilda and their lives won't be so easy, especially as Django's conflicted emotions about horrors of his slave past and his new responsibilities as a bounty hunter rise to the surface, threatening to blow their cover.        

It's odd describing the first half of a film dealing with such an ugly topic as being a fun watch but that's just what it is because of how Tarantino presents the personal and professional partnership that develops between Schultz and Django. There's an undeniable thrill in seeing this slave freed and given the opportunity to extract revenge on those who oppressed him. On top of it, it's interesting to witness all the double talk and scams Schultz uses to help him make it happen. Of the criticisms leveled against the film, the most popular is that Django is merely a spectator in his own story, rescued by the white man and unable to think or act on his own. But how much autonomy can he reasonably have? He's still only freed slave. The reality of the situation is that he won't be accepted on his own as a bounty hunter because of his race and he'd need a great deal of help pulling this off. It's simply a story requirement and nothing more.

Django's marginalization isn't a flaw and Foxx's role is clearly lead (or at least co-lead) but Waltz is such a titanic and charismatic screen presence that's he's basically tricked everyone into thinking otherwise. Much like in Inglourious Basterds, he steals show and there are a remarkable number of similarities between the two  characters, with the key difference of course being that Schultz is a German freeing slaves instead of a Nazi Jew hunter. It's fascinating to watch Waltz give a slick, fast-talking, witty performance that touches many of the same bases he did as Col. Hans Landa while this time around earning audience adoration instead of hatred. And Waltz accomplishes all this without really ever making the Schultz "feel" like the hero, but instead just as ruthless and calculating as the white slave owners he's hunting. Not to mention a whole lot smarter.

Foxx's job in comparison would almost seem to be a thankless one in that he must play the strong, silent avenger but he hasn't gotten enough attention for just how much of that quiet intensity and pain he has to convey when they infiltrate Candyland and he must come face-to-face with the atrocities of his own past while staying in character to effectively execute their scheme. It's here where we start wondering if he's enjoying his new role maybe a bit too much and possibly getting too cocky to see it through to the end. There's a great duality going on here and it's difficult to believe that Tarantino's original choice for the role, Will Smith, could have pulled it off better, or even as well, as Foxx. Smith's reasoning for turning it down are well-documented, confirming everything we've already known (feared?) about how he approaches his career, or rather his brand. That his problems with the script boiled down to " Must Be Hero" and "Good Guy Must Shoot Bad Guy" make me wonder if he even read the thing, or maybe just skipped the last fifty pages.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has never met a role out of his comfort zone or above his ability level   that he won't tackle. On paper, he would certainly seem ill-suited for a racist plantation owner, but yet again, he gives it his all and makes it work, turning in a diabolical, scenery chewing performance as Candie. He's all at once funny and scary, with a good argument to be made that the film doesn't really hit its stride until his arrival. And he's not even playing the most detestable character. That (dis)honor goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whose house slave Stephen might just be the most reprehensible character the actor's played in his career. So sickening in his subservience to Candie and the abuse of his own race that it's difficult to watch, the whole performance is kind of scary in how it touches a nerve and just makes us uncomfortable every moment he's on screen, including a scene where we realize he's more observant than we originally thought.

No Tarantino film would be complete without appearances from veteran actors like Don Johnson (memorable early on as slave owner "Big Daddy"), Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Savini and Bruce Dern. Jonah Hill also briefly appears when Tarantino accomplishes the impossible with an absurd gag involving the Klu Klux Klan you can't imagine would ever get laughs, but somehow does. Of everyone, Kerry Washington seems the least essential as Broomhilda, but even that role's challenging and it would be difficult to come up with suggestions as to who else could have tackled it as well. True to form, the director saves an almost aggressively distracting cameo for himself in the last act that ranks as the most unintentionally hilarious few minutes of screen time he's had as an actor in one of his own films. Complete with a bizarre accent and cowboy hat, his appearance is so crazy that it works almost in spite of itself, even as the filmmaker proves once again that he probably shouldn't give up his day job anytime soon. It's a good thing we're having too much fun to care.

Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is as much a character in the film as any person in it, utilizing the most music of any of his outings since the 90's, with a big standout being the use of Jim Croce's classic "I Got a Name" in a sequence where Django first comes into his own as a bounty hunter. For me, the only questionable musical choice comes in the final act, as Rick Ross' "100 Black Coffins," just seems too glaringly modern and "on-the-nose" to fit amidst the film's setting. But that's a minor quibble. With Tarantino's longtime editor Sally Menke having passed away, the glaring question going into this was what effect, if any, it would have on the finished product. Of course, looking at the running time the easiest joke to make is that there was no editing at all, but the truth is actually that the film holds together surprisingly well under the circumstances, and while some action probably could have been cut, there's good reason to be grateful for everything that got in.

Whereas Inglourious Basterds mostly played it straight until its third act, morphing into an alternate history revenge fantasy flick, Django is a revenge fantasy through and through, from the opening credits onward. It's also a spaghetti Western, a blaxploitation picture and a buddy film.The biggest surprise is in how it starts as an action comedy not too far removed from something like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and slowly morphs into something darker, calling the country out on its own shamefully racist past as the title character steps up to take ownership of his own story. When analyzing Tarantino's films, the popular approach is always to compare them, not to other works, but his own, which is unusual considering how many influences and inspirations he incorporates. Maybe it's finally time to admit he's more original than we give him credit for. 

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