Witty dialogue, unique music choices, obscure visuals, extreme gore and racial controversy –– it’s another Quentin Tarantino film, and I’m glad to say the master of postmodern film can still surprise me after a couple bland installments.
I know, I know — “Inglorious Basterds” was nominated for Best Picture, and other critics enjoyed “Deathproof”. Not me — too predictable and overly pretentious. But “Django Unchained” marks a return to form for a director who despises (well) chronological form. In place of chapter sequences throughout the film with various protagonists, Tarantino’s second period piece, this time a western, is a rather straightforward tale. But don’t let his newfound conventionalism thwart the originality at work.
Continuing the historical revisionism of “Inglorious Basterds”, “Django Unchained” tells a unique pre-Civil War story. While the former ponders a more satisfying conclusion to World War II, the latter constructs a story of Black empowerment in place of the usual victimization found in westerns. Freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django (Jamie Foxx) takes a liking to a life tracking down white villains, wanted dead or alive (normally dead). But beyond the general satisfaction of killing oppressors, Django needs money to purchase his wife from slimy Southern plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Many obstacles stand in their way, but perhaps the most troublesome is Candie’s house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a caricature of various Hollywood stereotypes of African Americans, namely Uncle Tom.
While “Kill Bill” made reference to Tarantino’s love of spaghetti westerns — along with martial arts, anime and blaxploitation films — “Django” is, perhaps, his most focused film since “Reservoir Dogs”. Pastiche makes way for a genre film motivated by genre reinvention. Just as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” declared the death of the classic western — specifically the brutality of pre-law society built on the gun rather than the pen — this one merges various aesthetic choices, all the while ignoring the limits of history.
Just as the “Basterds” — a secret squad of American soldiers — in “Inglorious” are simply tasked with “killing Nazis”, Django and his trusty German partner, Schultz, enjoy leveling a horrific playing field. And just like “Inglorious”, this is all leading to one bloody conclusion. This is a special kind of filmic escapism that allows futurism to inform the past. If you’re hoping for an authentic period piece, I’m sure something else is available for you. This flick is its own breed.
From thematic point to stylistic choices, “Django” is all original. In place of a full orchestra, Tarantino chooses music both nostalgic — the original theme song from the 1966 film, “Django” (none of the plotline is similar) — and completely modern — music by rapper Rick Ross and pop artist John Legend. It might seem out of place, and that’s what makes everything about this film so unexpectedly enjoyable.
Waltz made waves as Col. Hans Landa in “Inglorious”, earning an Oscar win for supporting actor. Under Mr. Tarantino, he’s up for another, though his chances are less likely (personally, I’m rooting for him). That said, Waltz proves he’s splendidly likable as a heroic figure, as opposed to his usually dubious roles, with quite the vocabulary. As for Foxx — always a cinematic gem — he’s always memorable, even if he’s upstaged by other quirkier performances.
Speaking of switching up your typecast, DiCaprio has that Southern accent down. More so, he knows how to make your skin crawl. As a truly evil slave owner who makes a hefty living on “Mandingo fighting” — using slaves in wrestling matches that normally go to the death — DiCaprio’s character constructs a truly horrific representation of American life during slavery. In place of the tempered rhetoric of Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that attempts to humanize both sides, “Django” doesn’t bother. Slavery is abysmal, and justifying it under the banner of “different times” lets institutional oppression off the hook far too easy.
Narrative complexity, technical brilliance and dark humor — it’s easy to see why “Django Unchained” is up for five Oscars, including supporting actor for Waltz, original screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and best picture. Unfortunately, it’ll most likely be ignored in every category. But for my money, few films can make me laugh and cheer, while satisfying my carnal yearning for retribution due to the greatest blemish on American history.
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