|'); document.write(''); //-->|
"Let's just keep it fun."
A solid hit for Quentin Tarantino and a critical and Oscar winner to boot, his Django Unchained thrilled audiences looking for "a little old-time spaghetti western action" -- a violent western show with lively character interaction, a blurring of the line between hero and villain, and wall-to-wall blood 'n' guts six-gun shootouts. Quentin Tarantino has built a career reinventing genres to his own taste, which is an eclectic but resonant grab-bag of ideas, situations and attitudes gleaned from 1,001 exploitation and grindhouse flicks of the kind that once circulated on VHS in fat clamshell cases, preferably with garish artwork on the cover. Distilling the essence of subgenres snubbed by mainstream audiences and critics, Tarantino has founded his own SuperGenre of action-revenge tales. In one two-part show he blended samurai slaughter, trailer trash intrigue and comic book martial arts ideas. He divided another feature into two exploitation mini-epics. They came complete with simulated broken film and missing reels, recreating the unique splendor of flea-pit filmgoing experience.
Tarantino got even more ambitious and daring with his previous film Inglourious Basterds, a manic rumination on "escapist" WW2 movies. For many viewers the film overstepped the bounds of acceptable taste, incorporating a broad streak of "Jewish vengeance", and trivializing Naziism with a crazy wish fulfillment fantasy in which the audience gets to vicariously machine-gun Hitler into mincemeat. But Inglourious Basterds had a point in that it highlighted the way WW2 is now perceived almost exclusively through big budget entertainments designed to simplify traumatic world events into matinee movie thrills. Tarantino even noted our desire for "fun" slaughter with a German propaganda movie-within-a-movie that looks exactly like a Hollywood combat thriller.
Django Unchained takes Tarantino back to basic grindhouse roots, to the most gritty Spaghetti westerns. The original Django was about a blue-eyed gunman first seen dragging a coffin packed with armaments, all of which are soon put to use. On at least one level the Sergio Corbucci film is a knowing parody of Sergio Leone's epics, which on at least one level were also parodies, of the American westerns so beloved by the European audience. Django Unchained is by and large a straight-on hero worshipping, operatic music playin', vengeance seekin' comedy of manners, that ups the violence quotient (natch). But it also keeps our attention with great Tarantino dialogue scenes and an in-your-face confrontation with a subject that American movies almost always ignore, water down or sidestep with any number of cowardly evasions.... black slavery. That's where the "unchained" bit comes in. Django is like the hero of the first monster Italian import hit, Hercules. The villains can only keep Django locked up and powerless for so long, until he gets the chance to smash them with their own chains.
Eccentric bounty hunter and German immigrant Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) makes a living by murdering wanted criminals and collecting the rewards. He's also a master conman, which allows him to spring the runaway slave Django (Jamie Foxx) during transport to new owners. They make a deal - he and Django will partner to collect bounties, and when the Winter is over they'll rescue Django's wife Broomhilda (Hildi) von Schaft (Kerry Washington). She's a runaway as well, purposely separated from him as a punishment. King and Django mercilessly waylay, bushwack and otherwise slaughter a number of wanted fugitives; at one point King must lecture Django on the necessity of being heartless in his work, as that's just how things are. In the Spring they head to Candyland, a notorious Mississippi plantation where the refined Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) keeps a stable of slaves that fight to the death in Mandingo combat. Candie's lavish empire is maintained almost entirely on the suffering of his many slaves; when one Mandingo fighter refuses to fight, Candie has him torn to pieces by dogs. Django has difficulty maintaining his composure when he sees that Hildi has been locked naked in a hot box as punishment. King proceeds with his elaborate ruse to trick Candie into selling her cheap. The only problem is that Candie's sycophantic, devious head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) gets wise to the scheme as soon as he sees how Django and Hildi look at each other.
Django Unchained starts strong and builds like a house afire ... with Tarantino scoring in every scene. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are a great buddy team in that they're so different. After playing the heinous villain of Inglourious Basterds Waltz gets to show some real charm as he smooth-talks and bamboozles his way through a succession of frontier yokels -- aided, I must add, by a spring-loaded Travis Bickle derringer he keeps tucked up his right sleeve. Foxx has just the right level of sentiment behind his simmering anger. Tarantino makes them as likeable as Butch and the Kid, and a lot more interesting than the more popular Spaghetti 'buddy' duos from the late '60s, like Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. We know that all the bounty hunting action is but a preamble to the main course, when our boys venture South to recoup Django's wife.
Tarantino's knack for entertainingly anachronistic dialogue is in full force, but his patented eccentric cutting and jarring stylistic changes are somewhat tempered this time out. The flashbacks aren't backed by a '70s TV theme; he only degrades the image a bit, so that some of Django's memories of Hildi look like lo-con workprint material. Smash-zooms to faces at key moments are accompanied only by a little 'whoosh' noise. The inter-titles are kept to a minimum, and they aren't purposely goofy, making fun of expository conventions. Likewise the music choices seem more subdued. Tarantino communicated genuine fan-boy joy when he jammed Al Hirt's Flight of the Bumblebee into a quick motorcycle buzz through Tokyo, or applied an out-of-left-field David Bowie ballad to a sequence showing a French theater owner dressing to kill a full house of Nazis. Here we get a few country songs and a lot of re-used Spaghetti tunes. We love Ennio Morricone western music, but it's also no surprise to hear it in Django Unchained. Where's Brasil '66? Or maybe Mantovani?
The show has been accused of exploiting its race theme, especially with its staggering over-use of the 'n' word. This is nonsense from the same mindset that would prefer that racial crimes both historical and present-day be kept out of sight and especially out of earshot. There's no exaggeration in Django Unchained, as everything presented did occur. There were atrocious places like Candyland seemingly dedicated to racial brutalities, where slaves were bred like cattle and elaborate, sick philosophies were indulged to justify their subjugation. The way mainstream viewers ignore documentaries, it's refreshing to see a popular movie with so educational of a theme. 1
The movie's bounty-hunting situation already puts our heroes in a morally questionable role... collecting money for someone else's misfortune seems such an American pastime. Dr. King Schultz and Django warm our hearts even more than Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper did in the original double-crossing cynical western Vera Cruz. But going to Candyland is like a trip to Hades, the kind of scheme that only a pair of experienced crooks could pull off. Calvin Candie is such a hiss-able dastard, and our partners go so far out on a limb, that the filmic tension goes through the roof. Forget propaganda BS about slaves being treated well, Yankee distortions, etc. Candie regards his slaves as submissive and servile sub-humans incapable of imaginative thought.
Few worthy precedents come to mind, just a couple of sincere but cautious films in the late '60s, like Herbert J. Biberman's Slaves, or the trashy de Laurentiis Mandingo. Paul Bogart's interesting comedy Skin Game must have crossed Tarantino's DVD player during the conception of Django Unchained; it's about a similar con game played by partners James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr.. Garner repeatedly sells Gossett Jr. at slave auctions and then steals him back, almost as Clint Eastwood does with Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Skin Game uses the 'n' word quite a bit, too. I don't think anybody would dare consider such a non-PC comedy idea today. I've seen the show every ten years or so. Sometimes it seems funny and other times uncomfortably smug.
Of course, Tarantino's entire modus operandi involves getting away with screaming non-PC content. He does this by keeping all notions of seriousness at an ironic arm's length, and surprising us with characters richer than those found in earnest, 'respectable' movies. 2 King Schultz tells Django a fable about Brunhilde and Siegfried, and we pay close attention. Jamie Foxx's Django is interesting because King considers him a Siegfried in search of his lady love. King wisely doesn't tell the version of the myth with all the murders and betrayals. Calvin Candie is the year's best-written but most contemptible bad guy, an exaggeration of every hateful racist idea known about the South. He's a walking insult so rancid that even Dr. King cannot control his outrage. And Dr. King has clearly seen a lot.
Tarantino may not be subtle but he has the courage of his convictions. The proof of this is in Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, who figures as a fascinating spin on the Uncle Tom stereotype. No innocent, dotard or victim forced to act as Candie's supervising 'house nigger,' Stephen is a prime example of black-on-black injustice. Worse than a Kapo in a holocaust story, Stephen has worked himself into a position of trust by ruthlessly carrying out Candie's evil bidding without having to be asked. Candie trusts Stephen so much that the old, white-haired overseer is able to interrupt, talk back and offer his scathing opinions without being beaten down. Candie preaches about phrenological evidence proving that blacks are inferior. Entreating people to accept such nonsense is just another demonstration of Candie's power: Stephen is probably the smartest guy in the room, and more than a match for King and Django's masquerade.
The odd link in the mix is Kerry Washington's Broomhilda von Schaft, a slave raised by a German master (which leads to an amusing opportunity for clever sub-titled German dialogue scenes with Dr. King). The word-image of Calvin Candie's Candyland conjures a critical comparison between Candyland and Walt Disney's Disneyland, each of them time-honored American traditions. The goofy name 'Broomhilda' associates with a syndicated comic strip, and when combined with 'von Schaft', generates a possible obscene connotation. But in the movie itself the very non-Aryan 'Hildi' functions as a surprisingly old-school damsel in distress, the beautiful, helpless kind. En route to Candyland, Django is visited by beautiful visions of Hildi, in fields, in a mountain lake. She's also seen partially nude in the picture, which may be a first for Tarantino. Although the scenes here aren't really very exploitative, I admired his earlier ability to create sexy women without simply undressing them... a concept foreign to most of the grindhouse exploitation pictures he's modeled his career after.
Forgive all the analysis above, but that's the aspect of Django Unchained that I find fascinating. It is the first Quentin Tarantino film I've seen that I'd describe as being sabotaged by its own bad story structure. The movie rises in an unbroken curve of mounting interest and tension until the big dinner scene at Calvin Candie's. Most of the main players are present and anything can happen. Tarantino is a master of dialogue-driven standoffs, where various parties pretend not to hate each other's guts long enough to chat and drink before things get seriously murderous. Quentin tightens the knot, then releases it, tightens it again, and then pulls that special ace he reserves for an action launch point, in this case, Calvin's insistence on a 'friendly' handshake to a dirty deal well played. The blast of gunplay that follows is a perfect capper to two hours of old-fashioned, stylish spaghetti bloodletting. Tarantino's effects men outdo themselves to show gunshot victims gaily exploding like big tubs of icky sticky hemoglobin.
Unfortunately, from that point forward Unchained seems to have not a single interesting thing to do or say. All the character relationships have been played out and the action scenes that follow resemble the near-random stuff of second-tier Spaghettis. Two more dynamite payoffs fall flat, and so do the attempts at comedy -- there's no longer any room for hilarious digressions, like the vigilante night riders with the sack-masks that don't fit right. Frankly, without Dr. King to interact with, Django is as boring as Burt Reynolds in Navajo Joe, a Spaghetti consisting of action scenes so generic that it hardly matters in what order they occur. And I was primed and ready for a Django-Dr. King franchise of western adventures!
It's that simple ... the first 3/4 of Django Unchained is some of the best work Tarantino's done, and I'm still glad he won his Oscar. But "multiple ending syndrome" did something to this show, which ends on a surprisingly flat note. Some body forgot to "just keep it fun."
Django Unchained is packed with guest stars playing various scurvy thieves that get blasted down by King and Django, and a few lamebrain townspeople and corrupt lawmen that, well, also get blasted down. We recognize momentary bits by familiar faces like Bruce Dern, Michael Parks and Tarantino himself, but most of the other name participants are difficult to spot without a prior tip-off: Robert Carradine, Russ Tamblyn (and his daughter Amber), Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, James Russo, Don Johnson. James Remar is chilling in a fairly large role as Candie's bowler-hatted bodyguard. He looks very much like old photos of Butch Cassidy but I'd never connect that face with Remar's nasty Dutch Shultz in The Cotton Club. What these cameo-bits teach us is that it's a shame that nobody can put together an all-star crime or western saga with all these great actor-personalities. They can't all be insurance risks.
Had anybody asked me in 1992 if I could be interested in quasi-remakes of '70s trash cinema, with the aesthetic style of chop-socky kung fu epics and the cheapest of Spaghetti westerns, I'd have said NO. So here I am acknowledging that I like Tarantino's pictures. In this one he gets a big wink by casting the original Django, Franco Nero, in a bit where he gets to ask his new counterpart about his name. We're lucky to have a traditionalist like Quentin making these crazy pictures. Someday he'll have a nervous breakdown and will direct a G-rated picture about babies and puppies and butterfly pixies. I have a feeling I'd like that too.
Anchor Bay / The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray of Django Unchained is the expected flawless presentation of Quentin Tarantino's epic re-imagining of Spaghetti western lore. Robert Richardson's cinematography has occasional pretty shots -- in the Searchers-like wandering montage, for instance, but it doesn't go in for lushness except when making a point of Calvin Candie's obscenely luxurious mansion. More typical is a coming-home-from-the-funeral scene where the walls are still splattered with the previous week's blood.
The extras are limited to three good featurettes. The first is a piece on horse stunts. As the movie was filmed in the U.S.A. (good for you Quentin) the horses appear to be well trained to fall on cue. Production Designer J. Michael Riva and Costume designer Sharen Davis are given handsome featurettes of their own. The other two items are brief ads for a soundtrack and a big box o' Tarantino Blu-rays.
But all bases are covered, exhibition-wise. A second disc contains a DVD encoding and instructions for a digital download and Ultraviolet access to the cloud, which apparently will be hovering over our insignificant existence for the rest of our days.
Tarantino fans loved this picture, and this Blu-ray will not disappoint.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Django Unchained Blu-ray rates:
1. Count me among the writers who opts for niceties like saying "the 'n' word" instead of writing out the word nigger. It would be presumptuous of me to claim ownership of the word.
2. Think of the early '70s black westerns (Buck and the Preacher, etc.) that tried to roll back blaxploitation trends with earnest and uplifting black pride themes. They're not all that memorable.
3. A note from Savant reader Tom Giegel, 4.22.13:
Hi, Glenn. Thoroughly enjoyed your, as usual, on-target review of "Django Unchained"!
Some personal thoughts: Christoph Waltz, for me, carried the film. His mesmerizing performance as Dr. Schultz proved that his equally mesmerizing performance in Inglorious Basterds was no fluke. Both performances were well worth their Oscars. Moreover, I agree with your assessment that the film sags when (omitted). From that moment on, I felt the film fell back on his "spaghetti Western" roots and became a mostly perfunctory, though highly stylized, search for an ending; I did laugh out loud, however, at the clever "knee-capping" joke. After (omitted), it becomes clear that Jamie Foxx alone couldn't have made the film the success it was.
Also admired Tarantino's nice homage to the star of Sergio Corbucci's Django. Franco Nero looked amazingly fit and younger than his years. However, I'm not sure how many in the new film's audience caught the reference. When I saw the film in a theater last winter, I remember briefly discussing it to a young concession clerk, who had liked the film a lot. He was absolutely clueless however about the Franco Nero cameo, and equally clueless about the original "Django," though he seemed interested in seeing the 1966 film when I informed him that it was available on blu-ray, and in color. Frankly, I don't think that even many die-hard Tarantino fans caught the reference to the original "Django." (After seeing how well Nero looked in the new film, it kinda made me wish that he had starred in the title role rather than Foxx, though I realized that this wouldn't have made any sense at all given the film's anti-slavery theme.)
I also agree with your mention of the fine slate of character actors in the film. Having seen thousands of films from the thirties on, it makes me sad that the era of excellent character actors has passed in Hollywood. These were specialists that gave breadth, depth and variety to the many films in which they appeared. I guess young actors today have no desire to develop character acting skills, deeming them to be for inferior, lower-billed parts. Everyone wants to be the star it seems; anything less is demeaning. Too bad.
Finally, I laughed out loud about your comment on Tarantino making a film "about babies and puppy dogs and butterfly pixies." Glenn, this amusing idea isn't all that far-fetched. Even the wildly eccentric David Lynch made a charming G-rated film for Disney some years ago called "The Straight Story." -- Take care, Glenn, Tom Giegel
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with footnotes, reader input and graphics.