Among other accolades, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained recently won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Having finally had a chance to see it, I declare both were richly deserved. Moreover, it’s a significant film that deserves an audience outside Tarantino’s usual genre fans.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave in the pre-Civil War south, who has been separated from his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) after they attempted to escape from their master’s plantation. He’s freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs Django to help identify a trio of escaped criminals. On completion of that job, Django himself becomes a bounty hunter, and he and Schultz set about tracking Hildy’s whereabouts.
They discover she was sold to a notoriously brutal Mississippi slaver named Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Among other depraved activities, Candie cultivates a stable of black men for vicious to-the-death brawls for the amusement of whites. Posing as slavers themselves, Schultz and Django attempt to win Candie’s confidence, infiltrate his estate and rescue Hildy.
Django Unchained contains the usual flourishes that Tarantino has become known for – pulpy titles and film embellishments, ironic non-period music, spastic camera movement, and buckets of spraying blood. And yet, it’s possibly the most mainstream film he’s made to date. Though on the surface it seems like a revenge fantasy along the lines of his previous Inglourious Basterds, it’s really a more personal story of the trials Django overcomes to reunite with his love. Tarantino’s depiction of some of the more terrible racist violence is uncharacteristically restrained, without lessening its impact.
And while there’s not much in the way of social commentary here, the movie is also an important reminder of the inhuman acts men have inflicted on each other simply because of a difference in skin colour. There’s a tremendous amount of bravery on display here, from Tarantino’s script on down to the actors who must portray such heinous folk. DiCaprio’s Candie is magnificently evil, not only in his over-the-top moments, but even more so in his casual behaviour – he views his cruelty as the natural order of things. Samuel L. Jackson is also fascinating as Stephen, Candie’s head butler, a slave so indoctrinated by servitude that he’s as much Django’s enemy as Candie. Even Foxx takes on some disturbing material, with Django posing as a black slaver having to denigrate his own people.
Waltz is genuinely deserving of his Best Supporting Actor win, delightfully giving life to Tarantino’s dense dialogue. Schultz is quite similar to Waltz’s previous role as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa in Basterds – chatty, upbeat, pleasant, but always with a plan underneath – only this time playing for the good guys. Schultz is not only a major driver of the plot, but also its most consistent source of comic relief – a difficult balance that Waltz pulls off perfectly.
Tarantino’s script is also a justifiable winner. Despite the aforementioned gore, long stretches in the second act pass without a bullet fired or punch thrown, yet the tension is maintained throughout, and the movie holds interest despite a hefty running time of 165 minutes.
Admittedly, Tarantino’s work isn’t for everyone, but Django Unchained is definitely worth a look for even those who are still traumatized by Pulp Fiction.
Tags: movie review