Before sorting out my thoughts on Quentin Trantino’s new film “Django Unchained”, I checked my four-star Korean review on his previous work “Inglourious Basterds”(2009), and I was a bit amused by what I wrote at the beginning: “Asking Tarantino to find any film recommendable is not a very good idea – because those trashy films liked by him are possibly something we do not like much. But, in contrast, recommending his films is far safer.”
Decorated with shocking violence and bloody humor in his own distinctive pulpy style, “Django Unchained” is another insanely entertaining work from Tarantino, and it is safe to recommend it wholeheartedly for its electrifying mix of trashy fun and brilliant storytelling. Even though there are many holes in its loose narrative here and there, Tarantino is a confident storyteller who can capture our attention from the beginning to the end no matter how long his story is, and he keeps striking us with bloody violence and unexpected turns as the movie boldly dashes to its dark historical subject with the no-hold-barred attitude influenced by the trashy exploitation films he dearly loves. It is indeed trashy, but it is a big trashy fun, and his affection and talent elevate the materials into something far more stylish and enjoyable than your average exploitation film.
The story begins with a group of chained slaves being transported by a duo of slavers in the vast plain of Texas in 1858. When they are going through a remote forest later during night, they come across a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz(Christoph Waltz), who suddenly comes out of nowhere as riding his shaky wagon with a bobbling tooth model on the top. He has a special interest in one of the slaves because that slave can give him the crucial information about the men he has been looking for, and he is willing to buy him from the slavers at a reasonable price. Waltz, who was simply spellbinding in his villainous Oscar-winning turn in “Inglourious Basterds”, quickly holds the stage again with his seemingly courteous manner and Tarantino’s juicy lines to be deftly delivered by him; Schultz prefers smooth transaction as a sophisticated gentleman, but, if it is required, he can be very quick and ruthless as an efficient bounty hunter.
Schultz eventually comes to free the slave he wants, Django(Jamie Foxx), along with other slaves, and, after taking care of his latest business with Django’s assistance, Schultz offers Django a partnership. They become the partners for a while during winter season, and, as Django shows lots of potential in Schultz’s field(no, it is not dentistry), their business flourishes while winter is being over and spring is approaching(I wonder… are they only bounty hunters working around their region?).
Separated his wife Broomhilda von Shaft(Kerry Washington) for a long time, Django is determined to get her back, and Schultz is willing to help him(he despises slavery – that’s quite enough for the movie), but it turns out to be not that easy for them, for she is currently owned by Calvin J. Candie(Leonardo DiCaprio), a charming but vicious plantation owner in Mississippi whose average evening entertainment with his gentlemen at the exclusive club is ‘Mandingo fighting’(Oh, yes, Tarantino makes no secret about the reference to that infamous cult exploitation film “Mandingo”(1975) in his film). Through a tempting business offer, Schultz and Django manage to be invited to Candyland, the big Plantation owned by Candie where he trains Mandingo fighters, but they soon see they should be careful in Candie’s mansion – especially in front of the watchful eyes of Candie’s loyal butler Stephen(Samuel L. Jackson)
There are lots of shootings throughout the film and we can have some laughs as blood are splashed, sprayed, sprinkled, and strewn over the screen, but Tarantino makes it clear that there is nothing to laugh about the brutality of the American slavery before the Civil War, and he strikes our nerve hard with its sheer cruelty especially during the Mandingo fighting scene. As the white gentlemen are gleefully watching them like we enjoy a MMA fight on TV, two big black guys are forced to fight to the death with each other on the floor, and, while this does not look as horrible or gory as I feared before watching the movie, this scene shakes us with the sound effects full of pains and agonies even when the camera looks away from this savagery on the floor. It feels so brutal and savage that I even regarded it as a mercy killing when Candie hands a hammer to the winner for killing the loser in the end.
After going that far to shock and disturb us through the blatant and sensational conventions of exploitation film genre, Tarantino mercilessly and vengefully attacks the slavery through the bloody shoot-them-all action scenes as payoff while rarely losing the sense of humor. During the part involving an old bigoted plantation owner(Don Johnson) who is another case of the disgusting hypocrisy during that era, we get a very hilarious moment when he and his goons have a little problem with their hoods before executing their planned night attack. Even though they are advantageous in numbers, it is apparent that they are no match to Django and Schultz, and they eventually get what they deserve.
And there are wonderful scenes keeping being served to us while we are not entirely sure about where the movie is going. Christoph Waltz, who was rightfully Oscar-nominated for his performance in this film, has lots of fun with his delicious role whenever he has a chance to shine. It seems that Schultz is always right about what will happen and what should be done, but Tarantino and Waltz make Schultz quite an interesting character to behold. As he did in “Inglourious Basterds”, Waltz does a delightful waltz around the movie as a clever guy who can freely make transition in the mood on the screen at any point, and that fun aspect is well reflected by one sequence at the tavern of the town Schultz and Django ‘accidentally’ drop by. It initially looks like Schultz is recklessly asking for troubles through his bold acts, but he is still a smart guy with strong cards right inside his pockets even when many guns are pointed right at him.
While observing his dynamic interactions with Django throughout the film, I could see that it works as a road movie about an unlikely relationship between two different tough guys as it walks around the conventions of B-western film and revenge exploitation flick. Schultz is a killer who can eliminate many hunted men without any hesitation because it is his main business, but, like some of the likable characters in Tarantino’s films, he has his own moral and ethical codes, and, fueled by his changing relationship with Django, he finds himself driven to the spot he has never expected. How he deals with his matter of heart at certain point has an ironic and poignant tone, for, as the smartest man in the story, he surely and exactly knows what will happen due to his sudden illogical decision.
Waltz’s co-actors also have a ball in their respective roles. Jamie Foxx, who has been relatively lukewarm since “Ray”(2004) and “Collateral”(2004), gets a good chance to fully utilize his talent and charisma, and he does not disappoint us as he makes bold, confident movements on the screen and effectively counters Waltz’s colorfulness with his hard-boiled reticence reminiscent of the heroes of many spaghetti western films. At one point, he must hide his feelings while disguising himself as the worst kind of his race, and his shimmering outrage is barely hidden by his reticent face; he hates what he does, but he also knows he has to do it for what he wants.
On the opposite, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are also impressive as the two vile sides of the American slavery. In his most unhinged role, DiCaprio does not hesitate at all to transform himself into a truly loathsome villain with Southern charm, and he has a memorably twisted moment in which he gives a demented phrenological lecture to his guests at the dining table with a skull, a saw, and a hammer. His lecture looks pretty ridiculous due to its outrageously unscientific theory, but it is also menacing thanks to DiCaprio’s zealous intensity dominating the scene, and I thought about how much the bigotry and racism at that time were supported by such terrible nonsense – how much the black people were suffered because of that.
With white hairs and eyebrows, Samuel L. Jackson plays Candie’s equally hateful butler Stephen, who instinctively senses something fishy about his master’s new guests at Candyland. Stephen is a textbook case of the people loyal to their rulers and oppressive to their people; while he behaves like a humble loyal servant in front of his master and other white people except when he can have a private talk with his master, he is a domineering tyrant to the servants and maids in Candie’s plantation and, possibly, the slaves in the plantation. Jackson bravely hurls himself into this stereotype role, and his intense performance as Uncle Tom from Hell chillingly reminds us of one undeniable aspect of how the slavery worked; while sternly controlled and managed at the upstairs by the masters, it was also willingly supported and operated at the downstairs by such traitorous conformists like Stephen.
“Django Unchained” is a very violent but highly entertaining movie full of the bloody fun we can expect from Tarantino. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is excellent especially when the camera looks at the vast white and green cotton fields, and Tarantino proves again that he is one of few directors as creative as Martin Scorsese in case of inserting the pre-existing songs and scores in the soundtrack(I was particularly impressed by his use of the Nicaragua rebel march from Jerry Goldsmith’s great score for “Under Fire”(1983) during the introduction scene of Candyland). In addition, you may be amused by many cameo appearances made by several ‘forgotten’ stars such as Franco Nero(he was the star of “Django”(1966)) and notable actors like Johah Hill. Tarantino tries acting again during one scene and it is a bit distracting to see his imperfect acting, but I will not complain because, well, it is his movie after all.
Though I think it is not as great as Tarantino’s best works such as “Pulp Fiction”(1994), “Django Unchained” is one of the more entertaining films in 2012. There have been complaints about his rather excessive use of that N-word, but we all know that the white people casually used that word during that time, and Tarantino is a good screenplay writer who can write enjoyable dialogues while using that word as many as he wants – and it is a pure pleasure to follow his unpredictable story with lots of bloody fun.
Personally, I think the movie could have been polished and tightened more considering its many notable flaws including the faulty handling of minor characters. There is some pace problem during its latter half, and I was a little confounded by the way some characters are introduced and then disappeared with no purpose, and I think the ending could have been a little more explosive. None the less, it is still a terrific joyride on the whole – as long as you can tolerate its stylish but excessive bloody violence.