An old Western ride through the carnage of the Antebellum South.
Rating: The cinematography is too good not to be seen on the big screen.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a sensationally entertaining movie marred only by the sad fact that it didn’t know when to quit when it was ahead. For reasons that I don’t dare explore in a review, Mr. Tarantino left the audience at a complete meaningful loss when the uber-talented Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio simultaneously disappeared.
But let’s not dwell on the ending, as Mr. Tarantino has brought us one hell of a cinematic ride. Taking place in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi in 1858, he intentionally reminds viewers that it wasn’t that long ago in this country when the “N word” was as common as the word “bitch” is today. While many have condemned Tarantino for the multiple use of this word, why ignore the ugly side of our cultural history?
More to the point, this movie largely centers on three characters, and they are all mesmerizing. Christoph Waltz, who previously won an Oscar as the depraved Nazi in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), here embodies Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter with both a conscience and a biting sense of humor. He kills quickly and with considerable talent. Opposed to slavery as an institution, he reluctantly tolerates it as he seeks to purchase a slave who is able to recognize three of his next targets.
Jamie Foxx is Django, the slave that Dr. Schultz obtains by killing the men transporting him and others. Foxx masters his role, going from a young man who has completely lost hope to becoming Dr. Schultz’s partner with the promise of being freed. Empowered by Dr. Schultz’s strength, he immediately recognizes the upside of killing Southern white people no matter who they are.
The scenes of Waltz and Foxx together are colossally amusing despite their goal of killing unexpected targets. Seeking the three brothers who Foxx knows, referred to as the Brittle brothers, they end up on a Tennessee plantation run by a master played in complete disguise by Don Johnson. After downing their targets, Johnson, known as Big Daddy, seeks revenge by organizing a group looking like members of the Ku Klux Klan in white hoods.
What follows is a wildly hysterical scene where the Klan members, which includes a cameo by Jonah Hill, are involved in an argument over the fact that they cannot see out of their homemade hoods while riding their horses. You will be left laughing loudly as did the crowd sitting with me, and I can only urge you to notice that the laughter from African-American viewers was strangely much louder.
The last member of our trio was Leonardo DiCaprio, who played a racist Mississippi plantation owner who happened to own Django’s wife. Kerry Washington plays the tormented woman known as Broomhilda. This is a strong woman, as you can force her to physically bend but never break.
Dr. Schultz and Django seek out DiCaprio’s plantation in order to secure the sale of Django’s wife. Here lies the beating heart of Tarantino’s film, as Waltz risks his life for no other purpose than to help a slave that he has come to admire. This is without question the greatest cinematic relationship between two disparate gunmen since Paul Newman and Robert Redford met their fate in Bolivia in the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
The relationship between our three protagonists on DiCaprio’s large plantation is as enticing as it is physically beautiful. Tarantino allows his camera to display the beauty of the Old South against the ugliness of its social setting, and it frequently plays out as cinematic artwork on the big screen.
The exchanges between Mr. Waltz and Mr. DiCaprio are flat-out engrossing. They are two smart men in an intellectual battle, and Tarantino constantly leaves the result up for grabs. The tension mounts, and you are likely to find yourself squirming in your seat.
Added to the tension is the remarkable appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the house slave who is DiCaprio’s right hand man. Rather than oppose slavery, he embraces it due to the status of his position. He values his authority and power, and he despises Django from the first time he lays eyes upon him.
Without saying more, Tarantino graces us with magnificent performances by three memorable actors. Mr. DiCaprio’s filmography speaks for itself, as who can forget his performance as Mr. Hoover in J.Edgar (2011); his lead role in the powerful Inception (2010); his shocking performance in Shutter Island (2010); his troubled portrayal of a 1950’s businessman in Revolutionary Road (2008); his heartbreaking performance in Blood Diamond (2006), and on and on and on.
Jamie Foxx has also given us some unforgettable roles, the most recent being his hysterical performance as a man named Mo- -erf – – -er in Horrible Bosses (2011). Additionally, he was also powerful playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004) and Tom Cruise’s taxi hostage in Collateral (2004).
As for Mr. Waltz, his relationship with Mr. Tarantino reminds me of how classic movie directors have used the same actor to good advantage in Hollywood history. Think of how John Ford expertly used John Wayne in such remarkable films as They Were Expendable (1945); Fort Apache (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956). In addition, look how Michael Curtiz brought out the best in Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); The Seahawk (1940); and Santa Fe Trail (1940).
As for Mr. Waltz and Mr. Tarantino, they have jointly struck gold here and in the previously mentioned Inglorious Basterds (2009). While Mr. Waltz is proving himself to be an extremely talented actor (see last year’s Carnage), he and Tarantino are cut out of the same talented cloth.
In the end, don’t ignore Django Unchained because of your concern about the use of the “N word”. It’s not comfortable, but it wasn’t when it was so readily used in our society as recently as when I was a kid growing up in a small Southern Indiana town in the 1950’s. There wasn’t a racist bone in my family, but that did not stop me and others from calling my dark-skinned white friend “Ni – -er” as a nickname in grade school. We were kids for God’s sake, and we didn’t know any better.
On the other hand, we quickly learned how inappropriate we were when we reached our teenage years, and Mr. Tarantino reminds us here how inappropriate our country was for centuries.