When it comes to Quentin Tarantino movies, one thing you can always count on is originality — something that’s always welcome in this age of endless remakes, sequels, franchises, franchise reboots and CGI-action spectacles.
The 49-year-old director has a mostly uncanny ability to take from older movies (mostly B-grade, exploitation-genre pictures) and mold and twist them together into something immensely unique and creative.
For his latest venture into cinema, “Django Unchained,” Tarantino has made a western, which actually isn’t very surprising. He’s already exercised his skill and creative energy in other genres. He made two hard-boiled crime films (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction”) a Blaxploitation crime picture (“Jackie Brown”), a two-part samurai-and-martial arts homage (“Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2”), an homage to the grind-house action flicks of the ‘70s (“Death Proof”) and, in his more recent masterpiece, “Inglorious Basterds,” the war drama. It’s about time he’s made a full-on western.
But, of course, “Django” isn’t like a normal western — normal isn’t in Tarantino’s DNA. The movie deals the very controversial topic of slavery in the Antebellum South, but it doesn’t deal with it in the direct, thoughtful way Hollywood usually deals with the subject. Instead, it’s used as a backdrop to tell a spaghetti-western-style tale (mixed with a hint of blaxploitation) about vengeance and rescue, injected with Tarantino’s usual brand of wild eccentricity.
Like “Inglorious Basterds,” it’s a big, bold, wildly entertaining fantasy that only someone like Tarantino would have the guts to make. Like all of his films, “Django” walks a thin line between comedy and drama, a very risky balance that for, the most part, pays off.
A western hero
The hero of the story is Django (Jamie Foxx), a scared slave who eventually becomes a confident, revolver-wielding western hero. He’s freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), a German bounty hunter. The two embark on a journey across the South with the intent to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who’s been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner who makes his male slaves engage in one-on-one death matches (known as Mandingo fighting).
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Jewish characters were given the opportunity to enact vicious revenge on the Nazis; in this movie, Django is given the same opportunity, except against the white, oppressive slave drivers. There’s an amusing, but satisfying, scene early on where he whips a former slave driver into submission before shooting him. Foxx plays Django with cool, stern assurance, like any quintessential western hero.
Schultz is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Landa (the malevolent, but cunning, Nazi that Waltz played in “Basterds”), except that Schultz is a full-on good guy. Waltz plays him with such eloquence and ease. He’s deeply intelligent, walking into just about every situation with the utmost self-confidence. He’s never really fazed; he’s always thinking one step ahead.
The only times he seems unconfident is in the presence of Calvin, who’s also intelligent and suave, but also insane and sadistic. Calvin is the kind of cartoon villain that someone like DiCaprio can play easily, but he’s no less entertaining to watch.
The movie is expertly paced: Tarantino is able to keep it moving without it sagging, but at the same time, he gives his scenes ample time to play out.
This is a Tarantino film so there are a few instantly recognizable elements. First off, his screenplay is loaded with his trademark witty and intelligent dialogue. Secondly, his use of music, mainly spaghetti-western variations (preexisting music and also a couple of songs composed for the film) to emphasize the drama or establish mood and tone.
There’s violence galore in “Django,” another standard in Tarantino land. Two kinds exist: The first pertains to the more serious parts of the film (violence toward Broomhilda and other slaves, for example), and the other is the over-the-top, exaggerated, comic-book violence, like during the final shootout at the end. Whatever kind violence it is — and however much there is — Tarantino never uses it willy-nilly.
In regard to the first kind of violence, he shows the audience just enough for us to feel the effect without over-exploiting it. For instance, we get one short, brutal scene showing Mandingo fighting, and nothing more is seen after. When it comes to the other kind, he has no problem showing the blood, gore and hyperbolic deaths in all their glory. He knows that that stuff is fake and cartoonish, whereas the scenes involving Mandingo fighting is much more shocking and touchy to a movie-going audience. Tarantino achieves an oddly brilliant balance.
In the end “Django Unchained” is a Tarantino movie through and through — that means it won’t appeal to everyone. If you didn’t like him before, chances are “Django” won’t change your mind.
At the very least however, beneath all of the Quentin-esque mayhem, he should be commended for taking on such a touchy subject in such a fresh and entertaining way.