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Django Unchained / **** (R)Posted Thursday, December 27, 2012, at 11:57 PM
Jamie Foxx is a freed slave out for vengeance in the new film "Django Unchained".
In many ways, the cinema of Quentin Tarantino is a cinema of manners. Often he deals in the manners of criminals. He also deals in the manners of filmmaking. His characters have to function with the proper manners to survive. They must manipulate the manners of others, and they must know when manners matter no more. This process also describes Tarantino's filmmaking approach. He knows the rules better than anyone. He studies the rules established by other films. He uses those rules to tell his stories. He manipulates those rules and he breaks them to make the most original and entertaining films to be consistently produced by one filmmaker.
Tarantino's latest film, "Django Unchained" finds the writer-director moving to yet another genre--the western. As he so often does, Tarantino steals the foundation of his film from another source--the popular Spaghetti westerns of the late 60s and 70s. In particular, he resurrects the character of Django, a name referenced in over thirty unofficial sequels to the 1966 film "Django", written and directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero in the titular role. Like those other films, the name Django is about the only connection this film has with the original, although Nero does perform a cameo role here.
Tarantino's Django is a black slave who is given his freedom by a former dentist-turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz make a good, if unlikely, hero paring as Django and the good doctor respectively. Schultz needs Django to identify a bounty for him, and comes to admire Django's unique fire. Schultz takes Django on as a partner and promises to help him find and buy the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda.
Broomhilda has come under the ownership of a peculiar southern gentleman named Calvin Candie, played with more charm than tooth gnashing by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie has a taste for the particularly nasty sport of Mandingo fighting, a plot point lifted from the 1975 film "Mandingo" where slaves are pitted together in a fight to the death. Schultz and Django pose as newcomers to the Mandingo fighting ring to gain the confidence of Candie to purchase Broomhilda her freedom.
The film has come under some scrutiny for its exploitational qualities. "Django Unchained" shares much with the blacksploitation cinema of the '70s--a genre that has holds its influence over many of Tarantino's films. Filmmaker Spike Lee has spoken with his typical anti-Tarantino vitriol against the film, which he admits he hasn't seen. His main complaint seems to be that the movie doesn't paint an accurate picture of slavery in the south just before the civil war. I doubt it's meant to. Like his previous film "Inglourious Basterds", Tarantino has made a fantasy with "Django Unchained" that is meant more as retribution for the acts of evil that were perpetrated against black people than as an accurate portrait of what really happened.
I like the blunt nature with which Tarantino and his cast approach this material. Waltz in particular seems like a western oddity at first--although it has always been a genre that specializes in oddities. His dentist bounty hunter knows his trade well. He knows that you can't just go around announcing yourself as a bounty hunter and ever expect to collect any bounties. After purchasing Django to identify a bounty for him, he stops in a small town to collect another bounty. He hasn't had time to explain everything to Django, and he explains nothing to anyone in the town before he shoots their sheriff. Once he does explain himself to a very upset Marshall, the Marshall is left speechless. His explanation is all very neat and clean despite the fact that Shultz looks like a psychotic at first.
Giving the audience characters that they like is one of Tarantino's gifts. Shultz is one of the more likable men QT has ever written. He does a nasty business. He describes it as "dealing in flesh, much like the slave trade." He just deals in dead flesh. Yet he retains his civility.
DiCaprio's Candie also has likeable qualities, though at he core he's a scoundrel. He's also a perfect Southern gentleman. It'd be tempting to say that he only seems to be a gentleman, but DiCaprio makes us believe he really is the fair man he claims, he just has particular tastes and doesn't like to be crossed.
That brings us back to the manners. When Schultz decides to take Django under his wing as a bounty hunter, he speaks to him about the importance of playing his role. "Never break character," he tells Django. As the man of vengeance, Django might be the only one who isn't really playing a character. Shultz has been playing a character ever since he left dentistry, or perhaps that was his mask when killing was his true calling. Candie wants to be so affluent that he insists everyone refer to him as "Monsieur Candie", even though he doesn't speak a word of French. His head slave, Stephen, is so wrapped up in his role as the perfect house slave, that he protects Candie like a mother hen. He literally plays a doddering old man for his master. When he speaks with people who threaten Candie in private his limp goes away, and he straightens his gait, and he embodies the menace that only Samuel L. Jackson can at the top of his game.
As usual, Tarantino plays at a bloody game here. He begins the film with a fit of bloody violence and ends it in a blood bath. In between are his usual scenes of exquisite dialogue. His characters are never more intelligent or knowledgeable than they should be. Even his hero doesn't understand all the fancy words that escape Schultz's eloquent speech, but he is smart. He learns them. It's those types of details that make QT's characters and world so rich.
Tarantino also fills his screen and soundtrack with stylistic flare. The music of the Spaghetti western has always been part of the QT soundscape. That stands out in a film set during World War II. Here it's the contemporary songs that stand out. Anthony Hamilton's "Freedom" and Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" seem peculiar in a western, but work as commentary on the action and as subtext. He also fills all the small roles with some of the greatest character actors you've never heard of and Jonah Hill and Don Johnson. Like the music, some faces might surprise you, but they bring a certain texture to the characters that lend the story its own authenticity and humor.
With "Django Unchained" I'm beginning to wonder whether it is possible for Tarantino to step wrong anymore. He began as an exploitation filmmaker who played with the manners of a serious filmmaker. Now, it seems he's truly become a serious filmmaker, whose manners still play with the flash and flare of an exploitationist. It's hard to tell which one he is anymore. Like the character of Stephen, it seems both the roles he plays have become the real Tarantino. This has made him one of the greatest artists ever to make movies, and this one joins his growing list of masterpieces.
"Django Unchained" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.