Before watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Django Unchained”, I knew that it would be one of the best films of the year. Because of Tarantino’s wit, flair, and command of the cinematic form, there was no reason to expect the story of an ex-slave (Jamie Foxx) and his German liberator/partner’s (Christoph Waltz) quest to free his bride (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a vicious plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) to be anything less than an exhilarating ride. What didn’t anticipate was a film that would not only meet and exceed my expectations for it to be a best of the year contender but also that it would be one of the best of the new decade. “Django” is a life affirming, epic revival of the Blaxploitation and western genre that proves just how vital and awe-inspiring American movies can still be.
There are a lot of surprises in “Django”, none of which are as satisfying as seeing Jamie Foxx transform into a larger than life action hero. Foxx has turned in fine work before in films like “Any Given Sunday” and “Collateral” but he’s never been as good as he is here. Foxx goes on a journey from slave to man to bounty hunter to cowboy to mythic hero in the most briskly paced near three-hour film I’ve ever seen. A lesser filmmaker would have belabored the character’s evolution with ostentatious big hero moments that felt unearned. Tarantino builds Django slowly resisting the understandable urge to show how thoroughly badass Foxx has become until late in the film’s third act. This decision pays huge dividends because as soon as you see Foxx emerge from a cloud dynamite smoke after coldly executing four guileless slavers, you know he’s become a legend. No director has done more for his leading man since John Ford turned John Wayne into John Wayne in “Stagecoach”.
In addition to elevating Foxx, Tarantino gets the best work out of Leonard DiCaprio since 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Tarantino succeeded where Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood failed because he understands something essential about “Inception” star, that despite his many accolades and undeniable box office appeal, DiCaprio is a character man not a lead. By taking the weight of carrying a film off of DiCaprio and allowing him to channel his ever-present rage and tendency to over emote into character who doesn’t need to liked or taken seriously, he is set free. DiCaprio gives a fiery, charming performance that stands as the finest in his entire career.
Samuel L. Jackson turns in his best work in years as DiCaprio’s conniving and cruel house slave Stephen. When Jackson first hobbles on-screen, joking and jiving his way through what appears to be a disgusting Stepin Fetchit routine, you could assume everything Spike Lee has said about Tarantino was true but as we spend more time with Stephen we understand that his act is just that. Not only has the character so thoroughly absorbed generations of racism that his any hint of black agency immediately raises his ire but also that modicum of preferential treatment he’s received as a house slave has warped his ego in such a way that he feels pleasure from brutalizing his fellow African-Americans. Jackson is unselfconsciously monstrous as the film’s true villain and watching him get blasted into the ninth circle of hell is incredibly cathartic. I sincerely hope that Jackson doesn’t wait another twelve years before being this good again.
Tarantino also gets a fine performance out of Christoph Waltz. After seeing him in “The Green Hornet” and “Carnage” in seems that only Tarantino can get a good performance out of the Austrian actor but when he’s this good it hardly matters that he only shows up for work every few years. Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz is a character that captivates every time he’s on-screen; giving Tarantino’s wonderful dialogue a musicality that few actors can provide. As with Waltz’s Hans Landa, Tarantino gives Schultz a fatal flaw that stems from his strength, with Landa it was supreme almost justified arrogance, with Shultz it’s a penchant for overly elaborate schemes. That the conclusion to each character arc is apparent until moments before they happen is a testament to Waltz and Tarantino’s collaboration.
Kerry Washington doesn’t have much to do in the film but she makes quite the meal out of the morsel she is provided. With every hesitant reply and agonized tear, you see the full weight of slavery on Washington’s face. Any accusation that Tarantino has undersold the horrors of the Antebellum South at the expense of making a rockling Spaghetti Western are proven false as soon as you see the scars left by the horror that is plantation discipline. Washington skillfully personifies a lifetime of fear and pain.
Tarantino has always been an actor’s director and “Django” certainly features a number of standout performances but it also shows that Tarantino has reached a new level of visual sophistication. Since his return to directing after a six-year absence following the release of 1997’s “Jackie Brown”, Tarantino has worked with cinematographer Robert Richardson on all his films (excluding his self-shot 2007 film “Death Proof”) and with each successive film has shown a greater ambition in his set pieces. With “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “Jackie Brown” Tarantino crafted a number of memorable, compelling sequences that have been imitated by a generation of filmmakers but with Richardson at his side, Tarantino has cemented himself as director of the same caliber as his heroes. The House of Blue Leaves in “Kill Bill vol. 1”, the burial of the Bride in “Kill Bill vol. 2” and the Revenge of the Giant Face sequences in “Inglourious Basterds” have all shown a level of visual mastery that finally matches his resplendent dialogue.
There’s a gunfight in this film that rivals prime John Woo. There’s a thunderous Verdi-scored raid sequence that references and brutal undercuts a similar one in “Birth of a Nation.” There are landscape shots so gorgeous that they rival anything in Richardson’s oeuvre, which includes “Platoon”, “Snow Falling on Cedars”, and “Hugo.” The relentlessly dehumanization of the slaves is as harrowing as anything “Schindler’s List.” And the conclusion in the film, wherein in Tarantino addresses the totality of slavery with the same clear-eyed conviction that he dealt with that of National Socialism demonstrates a moral clarity that’s positively von Trier-ian.
The film’s soundtrack is as good as one would expect from a Tarantino film. There are a number of excellent needle drops featuring music from Luis Bacalov and Jerry Goldsmith and it also features beautiful original songs from legendary composer Ennio Morricone and entertaining fabulist Rick Ross and John Legend is in rare form with the barn burning “Who Did That To You?” but the stand out track is clearly “Unchained.” The song not only mashes up James Brown’s “The Payback” with 2Pac’s “Untouchable” it also mixes in audio clips from earlier in the film. The audacity of playing exhilarating self-referential mash-up over a bloodbath that recalls the ending of “The Wild Bunch” is why Tarantino is one of our greatest working directors.
Aside from the pleasures of witnessing righteous pulverization, the film also offers a very welcome rejoiner to the recent spate of noxious race relations dramas that have seen great success in recent years. When the confident, nigh invincible Django blows away residents of the Candyland plantation, it’s not much of stretch to imagine him also blasting away at award-winning tripe like “Crash”, “Amistad”, “The Blind Side” and “The Help.” For all the help that Django is given by Dr. Schultz, he is start to finish his own man, capable of achieving victory in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds unaided. This powerful assertion of agency makes Django of a piece with black heroes like Shaft, who less we forget was also created by a white man. In both cases the Caucasian vision of an black hero truly becomes real when embodied by a talent black actor.
“Django” is somewhat bittersweet film in that it’s the most rousing African-American film in years but it’s not made not made by an African-American filmmaker. While I’d never argue against Tarantino’s right to make a film on any subject, it’s disheartening that there’s no black director with the ambition or ability to make a film with the sweep of “Django” but Spike Lee, Tim Story, Lee Daniels, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, John Singleton, Mario Van Peoples, and Tyler Perry have other passions. Also none of the above listed filmmakers really have the talent to pull something like this off some maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe “Django” will inspire the next great African-American auteur.
2012 was a very good year for film. We had great films from veterans Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Davud Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Ang Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Lynn Ramsay and stunning work from emerging talents like Gareth Evans, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Rian Johnson, Panos Cosmatos, Colin Trevorrow, Sarah Polley, but Ben Affleck of all the films I’ve seen this year, “Django Unchained” stands as the best.
Tickets for Cleveland area showings of “Django Unchained” can be purchased here.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com