|Pictured: The only non-violent scene in "Django Unchained."|
This review appeared in "ICON," and is reprinted with permission.
Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction was the first time going to the movies felt life altering. Ten years later, after Kill Bill: Volume 2, I had given up on the fast-talking auteur. Something was amiss. It felt like he was too busy living in other worlds, sampling movie memories from his childhood and video store days, instead of creating his own.
With some hesitation I reacquainted myself with the writer-director by watching Django Unchained. I’m glad I did. It feels like the Tarantino who won me over in October 1994: cool, insightful, dying to get your attention. He’s back to being the wild child having too much fun with his chemistry set. It’s one of the few movies in 2012 that caused me to leave the theater with a swagger—while feeling a little regret over my self-imposed abstention.
Taking place in 1858—“two years before the Civil War,” according to Tarantino—Django Unchained never walks in a straight line. In Texas, dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to track down Django’s former overseers. This begins a successful partnership that spans several months and many dead bodies before a final assignment: retrieving Django’s estranged, still enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a Mississippi dandy plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Now a free man, Django poses as a talent scout for Schultz, who plays a big spender eager to pursue Candie’s love of slave fighting. The partners are forced to stay at the Candieland estate, which only aggravates the pain underneath Django’s freedom. Schultz, a gentle soul, is the only one who treats him like a person. And he’s constantly asking Django to assume a role, whether it’s posing as a fancy-pants valet or picking off bandits. Django tells a concerned Schultz he’s “getting dirty” by antagonizing Candie’s crew. The man is not just talking about his acting approach.
Django suppress his rage and betrays his race; Schultz has to battle his moral consciousness. We know this because Schultz never lords Django’s past over his head. He was hired for a job, so why are people staring when they ride horses into town? Schultz may be the latest in Tarantino’s line of eloquent cold-blooded killers, but he has a soul. When Candie is about to sic the dogs on a runaway fighter who cost him a measly $500, Schultz offers a reimbursement. Django overrules him. Morals don’t exist in this world.
What happens to that slave propels both men toward a bloody, cathartic fate. The beauty in Tarantino’s approach here is that the excessive violence doesn’t damage the characters’ substance. Foxx (taking over for Will Smith) and Waltz summon the emotional toll of their characters’ work, but they have fun. You can hear Waltz—it’s impossible to overstate how good he is—relish the twisty lines of dialogue Tarantino provides. And the angrier Foxx gets, the better he is. You can hear the rage boiling even as Schultz cools him down with each kind gesture.
Some may say that Tarantino is wallowing in stereotypes and shock, whether it’s the almost non-stop utterance of “nigger” or Samuel L. Jackson’s simian resemblance. As Schultz might say, it’s part of the show. It’s clear that Jackson, playing Candie’s ancient house slave, runs Candieland. And the violence, exquisitely captured by cinematographer Robert Richardson, is frequently comic relief. Schultz shoots a small-town sheriff dead, but no one reacts until a woman faints. Before Django ambushes a room of grizzled bad guys, we see one painting a birdhouse. Tarantino, playing a rascal with a vague accent, becomes a real-life Yosemite Sam, holding sticks of dynamite at the worst possible moment.
Tarantino’s willingness to question the decorum of whatever genre he’s honoring made me love Pulp Fiction, a trait that endeared me to Django Unchained: a plantation owner (Don Johnson) figuring out how to communicate with a free black man; a nascent version of the Ku Klux Klan (whose members include Jonah Hill) getting stymied by poorly constructed hoods; a defenseless slave driver begging for forgiveness by reminding one of his angry workers that he once gave him an apple.
Every reason I’ve expressed for liking Django Unchained sounds contradictory. Part of the fun is watching Tarantino connect the dots to produce something this entertaining and enriching from disparate elements. It’s a hell of a trick, and a terrific movie. Wieder sehen, Quentin. [R]