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Josh Reviews Django Unchained

Watching Django Unchained, the new film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, I kept thinking to myself that I can only imagine this must have been what watching Blazing Saddles was like, back in 1974 when it was originally released.  Both films deal with slavery and America’s ugly racial history head-on, but filtered through an unexpected genre.  In Mel Brooks’ case, the story was told via a raunchy comedy.  In Quentin Tarantino’s film, the story is told via an exploitation action/adventure.  Using their unique prisms, both films tackle the issue of slavery, and all of the horrendous dehumanization that entailed, far more directly than any straight “dramatic” film I can think of.

Mr. Tarantino has raised some eyebrows recently by claiming that he feels his film is more authentic even than the seminal TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.  I don’t want to wade into that drama at this time, but I bring up Mr. Tarantino’s comments in order to illustrate what seems clear to me was the film’s goal: to use the visual language and style of the spaghetti western to make a powerful statement about America’s original sin.

In this, I would argue that Mr. Tarantino succeeded dramatically.  The genius of Django Unchained is that it is on the one hand a potent statement about race relations (both in America’s past and today) and about slavery, while on the other hand being a fantastically fun, entertaining revenge flick/cowboy movie.  This is a fiendishly difficult tone to strike, but Mr. Tarantino makes it looks easy.

There are some jarring transitions.  I found the scene of “mandingo fighting” (that comes soon after we meet Calvin Candie) to be extremely difficult to watch, and it took me a while to shake that and allow myself to get back into the fun.  But it seems to me that this is by design.  Mr. Tarantino wants us to have a good time watching his film, but he also doesn’t want to take the easy way out in his depiction of slavery.  He wants to make us look right at these terrible crimes that man committed unto his fellow man.

But make no mistake, Django Unchained is a phenomenally entertaining time at the movies.  Mr. Tarantino’s two primary skills are on constant display as the film progresses.  One: the beauty of his dialogue, and his ability to wring enormous tension out of mere conversation.  There are some extremely memorable monologues and exchanges in Django that rank with the very best of Mr. Tarantino’s work.  Two: his fearless use of extraordinary violence, and his ability to turn that gruesome violence into a sort of poetry.  A lot of blood is spilled over the long run-time of Django Unchained. In the hands of a lesser director, this might be over-the-top and off-putting.  In the hands of Mr. Tarantino — well, it’s still over-the-top, no question — but over-the-top in the cause of carefully orchestrated comedy or tension or just cathartic emotional release when the film’s many bad men get their come-uppance.

Django Unchained is a film that always feels alive, that always keeps you guessing.  You never know what is around the next corner — a moment of comedy, or of terrible violence.  I love the film’s idiosyncratic pacing, particularly at the end.  There is a moment towards the end of Django Unchained that feels like the climax of the movie, but then things take an unexpected turn, and suddenly we find there’s another twenty minutes of story left that we weren’t expecting.  I love that.  The film is long (two hours, forty-five minutes), but it doesn’t FEEL long, because it is terrifically entertaining from start to finish. Yes, the film is leisurely paced, and I adore it for that.  I would gladly have spent many more hours in the company of these characters!  Mr. Tarantino gives his characters the room to breathe, and while the main story of the film doesn’t really get going until about half-way through (when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is introduced), I absolutely was delighted by the first half of the film, which gave us a chance to get to know Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), to care about them and to emotionally invest in them.  The second half of the film wouldn’t work without all the time spent with the two men during the first half.

Between the subject matter, and the violence, and the language, Django Unchained is a film that feels transgressive.  Much has been made of the film’s repeated use of the n-word, and indeed that is surely a large contributing factor.  Here we see another comparison with Blazing Saddles. It is easy to remember Blazing Saddles just for the silliness of scenes like the cowboys all farting around the campfire, but the language of Blazing Saddles is shocking today — in specific for the regular and repeated use of the n-word.  But this was the whole point, that Mel Brooks (and his co-writers, a team that included Richard Pryor) didn’t want to gloss over the ugliness of the time-period being depicted, and the casual racism.  They wanted to tackled those issues head-on, but by giving themselves the cover of comedy, they were able to do so.

So too with Django Unchained. Years ago, back in 2007, Mr. Tarantino outlined his goal for the film that would become Django Unchained quite succinctly:  “I want to explore something that really hasn’t been done,” he said. “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”

The film succeeds as well as it does not just because of Mr. Tarantino’s script and directing, but because of the remarkable work by the two leads.  Jamie Foxx is a revelation as Django.  I have seen moments of greatness in him before (his work in Ray was spectacular), but holy hell is he good in this film.  It’s an extraordinarily difficult role, and not just for the painfulness of inhabiting the role of a former slave, a man who at the start of the film has been thoroughly beaten down both emotionally and physically.  As the film progresses, most of the time we see Django he is playing one part or another, characters designed to help him and Dr. King Schultz succeed as bounty hunters, and so we the audience must get to know Django through the surface of these characters he is playing.  On top of that, throughout the whole movie Django says very little.  He has no monologues to tell us what he is thinking or feeling.  And yet, Mr. Foxx’s work makes it extraordinarily easy for the audience to get to know and like this man, and he makes us privy to what Django is thinking and feeling through his performance.  He underplays everything, and in the process creates a figure of super-cool badassery the likes of which I haven’t seen on screen since Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

Equally extraordinary is Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees Django and makes him his protege, and then his close partner and friend.  In Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Waltz embodied a figure of chilling evil.  Here, he is the exact opposite: jovial, courageous, righteous, and kind.  Yes, he kills people for money, but his character Dr. King Schultz (and it’s no accident that his character’s name is Dr. King) is depicted as by far the most noble and honest white face in the film.  And since the afore-mentioneed Samuel L. Jackson back in Pulp Fiction, I haven’t seem any actor better able to recite Mr. Tarantino’s wonderful words.  Dr. King Schultz talks and talks throughout the movie, and listening to his dialogue is like honey, like music.  Mr. Waltz spins golden poetry with his dialogue, and it is absolutely marvelous.

Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio, taking on what I believe is the first truly villainous role he has ever played.  To say that he is fantastic is an understatement.  As Calvin Candie, the owner of the plantation to which Django’s wife (played by Kerry Washington) has been sold, Mr. DiCaprio creates a figure of utter horror.  Calvin Candie is abhorrent, repellant, a little silver-tongued worm of a man, sitting atop an empire built on the pain and suffering of black men and women.  Mr. DiCaprio bites into the role with tremendous joie de vivre, and the result is an iconic, indelible character who I am having a hard time shaking.  It’s a great role, one made all the better by Mr. DiCaprio’s full-wattage star-power and his complete commitment to the performance.  (I was fascinated to learn, after seeing the film, that this commitment included the scene when Calvin cuts his hand in anger having been a real accident on-set, that they decided to keep in the film.  Wow!)

There are a lot of other great actors in the film.  Samuel L. Jackson is terrific in a meaty role as the horrible puppet-master behind Calvin Candie’s plantation.  Walton Goggins also portrays another figure of terrible evil, and he too is great fun to watch.  I wish we got to know Django’s wife more as a person and not just as a goal to be reached, but Kerry Washington does a very fine job with what she has to work with.  Michael Parks pops up in a small role at the end of the film and he is great fun to see.  I loved Don Johnson’s small role as well.

There are so many fun little moments and scenes in Django Unchained. As I was reviewing the various characters and performances just now, I found myself continually thinking about this great line of dialogue or that great exchange, moments that I don’t want to spoil for anyone.  Mr. Tarantino has created a rich world, and I am glad that he didn’t rush his story, but rather took the time over the course of the film’s long run-time to give us those moments, to allow those scenes to exist.

Most of all I am extraordinarily impressed at Quentin Tarantino’s ability to continually push boundaries, and to create films that are so uniquely and fabulously his own.  It’s hard to believe that a film that feels so important can also be so much fun.

Recently, Mel Brooks was asked about the content of Blazing Saddles, and in specific the use of the n-word, and whether he would have been able to get away with that today.  His response: “Never. If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today, they would leave out the n-word. And then, you’ve got no movie.”  This has long been my opinion, that a movie like Blazing Saddles would never get made today.  Having seen Django Unchained, I am glad that I was wrong.

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