Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained (2012) – Review

Review: Django Unchained is a highly entertaining action drama with some western aspects, full of references and throwbacks. The film is about a slave Django who is freed by a bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz who needs his help identifying a bounty he is looking for. Django and Schultz become friends and partners. Schultz decides to help Django rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation Candyland, whose owner Calvin Candie is notoriously wicked – a dangerous mission to say the least going into the belly of the beast.

Django Unchained is the second in writer-director’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy trilogy, following Inglourious Basterds. And like Inglourious Basterds (as well as most of his films), it is packed with references to many of Tarantino’s favorite films in the genre. Homage is most prevalently paid to the films of the spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci (who directed Django), a filmmaker in the genre that Tarantino loves (even more than Segio Leone who gets most of the praise in today’s cinema criticism). Corbucci’s films often tackle harder issues like racism, slavery, and class warfare (which are themes that Tarantino also addresses with Django Unchained).

Tarantino also seems interested in addressing the grandeur of the southern plantation – tearing it down as a myth and exposing the sheer inhumane cruelty and abuse slaves endured on these plantations (even with simple things like remarking that none of the whites have ever seen a black man riding a horse). This is not necessarily new ground, as media has focused on this topic many times (as historical revisionism aimed at exposing many of the horror before shaded over in history has been a popular academic pursuit since the late twentieth century), but maybe with not so much style and panache as Tarantino who does not pull his targeted punches.  One these such punches seems to be directly aimed at Gone with the Wind (when Django and Schultz travel to Mississippi they are met with a title in big bold letters tracking across the screen from right to left that is very reminiscent to Gone with the Wind’s opening title), a film that very much propagates the South and its way of life (forwarding the myth of the grandeur and elegance of the southern plantations for worldwide audiences, skipping over the brutality suffered by the slaves).

The violence in the film, for which there is a lot, is purposely overdone and almost cartoony. This was maybe done as an attempt by Tarantino to keep the film from being NC-17 or to keep the film fun, as the tone is mostly light. However, the violence suffered by the slaves in the film feels different. While the gunfights in which Django blows away whites are exaggerated, scenes in which violence is done to black characters are presented in a much more realistic and even horrific manner. This is a clear choice by Tarantino to create a deeper feeling of sympathy for the black characters by making their pain real, while white characters being blown up, shot and otherwise massacred is all in good fun.

This choice also firmly puts the audience behind Django, as they actively care about him and want to see him rescue his wife, and more so reap vengeance upon those that deserve it. The film also profoundly creates a sense of revelation in the audience at the true stakes for Django’s mission. While lots of films have created an emotion and revelation in their audience regarding the true plight of the slaves, Django Unchained does it while still playing as a mostly light action western. Thus, the revelation in the audience might be more profound, as they were not expecting to feel something about the film and the characters. However, the light nature of the film might also allow the audience to excuse the deeper emotional impact and forget it as the credits roll focusing on the comedy and exciting action.

Tarantino brings his style of brash dialog to the film as well. However, here with this topic, the juxtaposition of the way characters talk also plays into the emotional feeling the audience experiences. The physical violence in the film is extreme, but the verbal violence the slaves are subjected to is maybe even more damaging, as it is a coat of insults that just seems to lay upon them wearing them down and dehumanize them. The language of the characters is striking as it really exposes the clear disregard, even above hate, that many of the white characters have for the black characters. They are nothing to them, at least nothing human.

Overall, Tarantino gets across his message of exposing what slavery really was – not so much in the hardships suffered by slaves, as that is only briefly addressed, but in the relationship between blacks and whites in the South.

Narratively, Django Unchained is much more a straightforward story than Tarantino usually employs in his films with a clear three-act structure. Though, it still has sort of an episodic feel differentiating between Django and Schultz’s work in Texas and Tennessee as opposed to their venture into Mississippi to rescue Django’s wife. The film can almost be viewed has having two parts – the prologue in which Django and Schultz become friends and partners pre-Mississippi (act one) and the main narrative in which they go to Mississippi (acts two and three). However, the prologue is really more as a lot of character work is done in that section, which later allows Tarantino to focus on other narrative areas (like creating a fantastic villain with Calvin Candie); and it also allows Django to play a different character in disguise for a large portion of the Mississippi episode because he is already established with the audience. Even though the three-act structure is apparent, pre-Mississippi and Mississippi do have a different feel, which Tarantino clearly intended. Pre-Mississippi feels like a western, while Mississippi is much more an action drama with the hero deep in enemy territory. Django cannot merely ride off and hide if he gets in trouble, like characters often do in westerns; he is either going to rescue his wife or die; he is completely committed, which is what makes the drama so compelling.

Tarantino also does a masterful job with the tone. This is a very fun and entertaining film, even given the intense nature of its subject material. It is often very funny, as well. Tarantino is able to get across the drama and have the audience experience something real, but leaves them feeling light, as they have chiefly been entertained. He does this by having most of the violence play bigger (like a cartoon) and having the film packed with intended comedy (which all works).

For the most part the film is free from major issues, but the narrative does not quite have the dramatic impact it could. This is the choice Tarantino made. The film could not be both light and fun while still also fully engaging the audience dramatically, because this would have left the tone and ultimately the film feeling very disjoined and nothing would have worked quite as well as it does. Tarantino chose to primarily entertain. Though, even with the film’s fun tone, with multiple viewings the intended impact resonating from the narrative choices (such as the juxtaposition between the violence on whiter characters versus black or the way these characters speak) will ingrain itself in the viewer, thus having the same lasting impact that a strong dramatic take on the material.

The narrative is also a little loose in the first act (and maybe overly long). It does not really get going until Django and Schultz get to Mississippi and the stakes are raised, which is again why the film feels episodic.

Another possible issue is that the graphic nature of the violence and langue will not appeal to all viewers, as in both cases it is extreme (but also in both cases completely serves the narrative).

Django Unchained is not a great western in the classic sense of the genre, as it is not really a western for most of the film. However, it is a great action drama with the purpose of again exposing the villainy of slavery and the people that subjugated others to be their slaves.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Auteur Quentin Tarantino started off making great crime dramas and is now making great genre films. While he brings a great nostalgic style to his films (as a massive cinephile – especially for ‘B’ films), his own ability as a filmmaker has matured. His writing is brilliant, but with Inglourious Basterds (my favorite of his films) and now Django Unchained he directing seems equal to his words. The level of performances he is garnering is phenomenal as well. I cannot wait to see the final piece of his revenge trilogy.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography accomplishes the look and feel of a western while also complimenting the style of Tarantino’s direction (as this is there fourth collaboration). J. Michael Riva’s production design is great as well, as it both fits the tone of the genre and has fun with it (especially the Cleopatra Club set).

Django Unchained is visually impressive and has a fantastic directorial flair, but the strongest aspect is its impressive performances. Kerry Washington and Walton Goggins are good in small supporting roles. Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious, biting, and dramatically interesting (a compelling combination) as Stephen. It is his best role and performance from him in a long time. Leonardo DiCaprio is an absolute riot. He is wildly insane and having a blast as Calvin Candie. Looking at him, the viewer really gets the sense that they are starring at the devil. Villains often get to be played big and they often are the juiciest character roles – this is a great one and DiCaprio takes full advantage commanding every scene he is in. Christoph Waltz is great as Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter with a moral conscience and abhorrence towards slavery. Waltz plays Schultz to be quite playful with his words and delivery, often bringing the most effective comedy to the film. Jamie Foxx is very good as Django. He brings a quiet strength and willful disobedience to the role, while still giving off a clear soulful humanity (which allows the audience to fully connect with his character). The performance is among his best work.

Summary & score: Django Unchained unapologetically and boldly attacks the malice and repugnance of the people that propagated slavery by owning slaves raining vengeance with merciless graphic violence and complete distain. And as a revenge fantasy should be, it is very satisfying and enjoyable. 8/10

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