Monday, December 31, 2012
Django Unchained (2012) Movie Review
Somewhere in Texas..
Two years before the Civil War, a group of chained slaves en route between masters is interrupted by a strange horse and carriage driven by strangely curious dentist, Dr. King Schultz. Apparently looking for a man who may lend him clues to the whereabouts of several violent criminals, it is abruptly (and quite brutally) revealed that the well-worded doctor is in fact a more dangerous sort than expected. Upon discovering that long-suffering slave, Django (Jamie Foxx, in prime form) is very familiar with his potential bounty, Schultz promptly releases him, brings him up to speed, and offers him a percentage of his upcoming earnings should the duo succeed. Upon discovery that his new partner is surprisingly sure-footed, and a natural marksman, Schultz soon finds himself willing to take their partnership one step further by asking Django to remain his partner over the winter. In return, the good doctor will honor him not only in payment, but by assisting him in the search and rescue of his wife. Matters only exacerbate when the duo discover that she is in the hands of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mississippi plantation owner with a yen for Mandingo wrestling, and bottomless cruelty. Take this potentially explosive revenge & honor premise, and give it the vision of the ever irreverent Quentin Tarantino, and Django Unchained is both a bloody fun blaxploitation/spaghetti western mash-up, and greatest hits compilation, with a dash of a little extra.
One of the first things that came across my mind upon reading about the premise several years back, there was a moment of panic to be honest. Having been as much a devotee to QT's films as any other admirer, it both felt like an all too historically delicate wire to walk , and a patently obvious spiritual follow-up to his WWII fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (2009). And yet somehow, this tribute to two darling shelves of exploitation cinema of the past works in spite of its intense subject matter. As we become ever more acquainted by the relationship between our two leads, we are offered an interesting kaleidoscope of views shared by those less understanding, and those who cling to established pecking orders. While the film remains by all accounts a QT cartoon, there's a surprising amount of satire and complexity to the proceedings that don't hit all their respective targets, but have merit all the same.
The relationship between Django, and Schultz makes for a bulk of the film's most memorable scenes as they not only make efficient, and deadly bounty hunters, but also unexpectedly effective counterbalance toward each other. While Waltz's Schultz is an upstanding man with revolutionary ideals, they are tainted with the blood of others, and Django is able & willing to call him on it. Respectively, the doctor plays the role of mentor with the character of a man who has suddenly found himself a means to make his viewpoint a greater one in the world. By great, almost supernatural fortune, Django's wife is named Brunhilde(Kerry Washington), and speaks German. There is an almost Wangerian calling between the two men that harkens to legends of old. And even if both should not make it in a less understanding world, it is by their acts that perhaps new stories could be whispered of throughout the old south.
When QT takes on elements of the unfamiliar, it's fascinating to see how he and crew work Django into a remix that seems strangely recognizable. The first half of the film borders on episodic, until they run across clues to the whereabouts of Brunhilde, and it is once we are within the well-tended fields of CandieLand, it is vintage Tarantino through and through. Once the characters are allowed the chance to sit down, and either play along with Candie in hopes of tricking him out of possessing Hildy, the interplay settles into an interesting mixture of the familiar, and even unfamiliar as this is the first film in Tarantino's career, where the characters are completely unaware of future technology such as film. It is here, combined with the absence of late, great editor, Sally Menke, that Django takes on a curious new flavor with dashes of the past to keep up with tradition. This time making very obvious echoes of past films, most clearly Kill Bill & Basterds. Once within Candyland, it's all about the build of the plan, obstacles, and the unexpected that is bound to occur throughout the remainder of running time. When all is said and done, the entire piece is similar in structure to Basterds, yet without the ambition or polish of it. It is much more rough around the edges, again very much in keeping with both the surreal nature of Django films of the past, along with the best of 1970s Black Power action cinema.
One of the more compelling new wrinkles to the structure is where Django and Schultz find themselves at odds with the powerful, and those well-settled and unwilling to change. Just as much as our protagonists come to importance with each other in their quest, the malevolent Candie and family have with them an ever loyal head servant in Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), a crabby elder with more perceptiveness than meets the eye. It is this piece of duality that helps drive the second half with a little unexpected thematic heft. As the film plays within one of the more questionable chapters in American history, it also plays with the origins of certain adopted cultural attitudes. Often it is used to comedic effect as Django flexes his newfound freedom in strange and funny ways. It does also take on a more pointed, and potentially sinister turn as he intends to mimic the behavior of a "slave owning black man". His demeanor is strangely juxtaposed with certain observable attitudes in our contemporary lives. This is made that much more potent once in Candyland, as Django & Schulz meet Stevens, a man who seems eager to become the genuine article. While this could come off as a bit forced, and unnecessary, it's also very much in line with what the entire piece is playing with from the getgo. Where our heroes stick out like a splinter in the side of the establishment, the establishment itself has not only the muscle and firepower to protect itself, it also has converts, ready to protect the current system to the point of absurdity, no matter how masochistic. Candie relies on Stephen to be his eyes in places where he cannot see, just as Schulz is able to stay the course due to Django's perceptive nature.
Which perhaps leads straight into what will likely be one of the more talked about elements of Unchained, how it shares certain views of not only the slavery days of the American south, but of what led to our current array of mindsets in regards to race. While this is clearly a wild spin on the exploitation movies QT loves so dearly, there is just enough going on in the periphery to make it welt. As mentioned, the role of Stephens remains one of the most central ideas, but to a lesser degree, there is another character in the film who's constant sneer at Django later reveals a certain sadism, dressed in almost fetishistic threads. It's not enough that Billy Crash come off as a sadist, and a bit of a shadow villain-type, he engenders the role of poorly repressed homosexuality, turned demented. Not egregiously out of place as many spaghetti westerns often employed this for different reasons in the 1960s, but this time, it carries another purpose; repression breeds suppression. Not unlike the Candie house's decorum, much of the world in which these villains inhabit imply both a sense of the erotic, and of the flighty (check out Candie's maid's outfit during their first meeting). Django's bad guys are just as self-destructive as they are cruel to others. So it comes as no surprise when the wrath comes near the end of the second act, all the clues were laid out for us prior.
Which isn't to say that all goes smooth for the film. As mentioned, with a new editor, and perhaps a lack of script focus, Django Unchained is takes a little extra time to find its groove. While it has much in common with QT pictures of the past, it also does feel like it's winging matters a little more than usual. Also kind of strange considering how long it had been in the development. It's referential nature might not be as clear to viewers as they had been in the past. Lest there are more out there familiar with the works of italian western favorite, Sergio Corbucci (most notably, Django & The Great Silence). For what it's worth, the film's running time is only justified by the performances, and not so much by storytelling. There are indeed some great highs to be experienced, but as a Django film, it is missing something, even when the blood quotient is ridiculous and the camera is gleefully zooming. But as a Tarantino film, it succeeds in being rowdy, dangerous fun. It also works as a blood-spattered marker of where we are culturally with America's past tinted in oh-so grimy grindhouse colors.