Sometimes I don’t know whether to admire Quentin Tarantino or be infuriated by him. His films are grossly violent. He rewrites history with whimsical abandonment. He lifts themes and entire sequences from previous films. And, he spends an enormous amount of money in the process. All I do know is that as much as I would like to voice righteous indignation I have no compunction about spending the price of a box office ticket so see his films.
Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest offering, is, without a doubt, the most violent of all of his films to date. It is downright gory. Blood flashes across the screen as if it were toss from a bucket, an escaping slave is ripped apart by dogs, and a body is exploded with dynamite. It is a downpour of violence. Furthermore, throughout the film Tarantino demonstrates mastery for anachronism. The year of the story is 1858, yet there are Colt pistols, repeating rifles, dynamite, and reproductions of archeological finds that were not discovered until the 20th century, rolled cigarettes in cigarette holders - all items that did not appear on the scene until years later. The theme song in the opening credits is taken from the 1966 film Django (story not related to Tarantino’s) which starred Franco Nero, and in fact, Nero makes a cameo appearance in this film. Subjectively this film should be an abhorrent disaster, and yet, ironically it works.
The story of Django Unchained is basically the Siegfried and Brunhilde saga, told in the late 1860 Wagner’s opera “The Ring Cycle”, except that rather than it taking place in a primeval Nordic world , it happens in the South at the height of its slave culture just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Django, a freed slave, is Siegfried, trying to regain his wife (aptly named Broomhilda in this rendition and beautifully portrayed by Kerry Washington) who was taken from him and resold to another plantation. Like Siegfried he goes to extreme lengths to regain her. It is a very simple story which, cloaked in violence and historical improbability.
What makes this film work is its cast. Foxx, who incidentally was not Tarantino’s first choice (the film was written with Will Smith in mind but Smith turned down the role because of conflicting commitments) presents a very good rendition of the black bounty hunting cowboy. Foxx is not a handsome dashing cowboy but a hardened one – one who has risen out of grime and despair and saved by an act of fate. Christopher Walz plays Dr. King Schultz, a former German dentist who has arrived at the conclusion that gun slinging and bounty hunting are for more profitable than pulling teeth. He is Django’s savior, mentor and his only friend. Walz portrays Schulz with an incredible lightness of being. As Schultz he is the epitome of charm armed with a deadly accurate gun. (Walz, by the way, has earned an Academy Award nomination for his work in this role).
The most outstanding performance of this film however is Leonardo DiCaprio’s. DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a plantation owner imbued with the impeccable manners of traditional Southern gentility that masks a heart of entitled venom. Candie is heir to the fourth largest cotton plantation in the South. His slaves are chattel, toys and objects of sport. In his personal philosophy “niggers” are a lower species, although he does admit that once in ten thousand times there is a genetic exception. Candie is penultimate evil wrapped in a cloak of enchanting eloquence. The character is mesmerizing, due primarily to DiCaprio’s portrayal. It is without doubt the best work that he has ever done, and it is a shame that he has not been recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for his successful effort. Of all the characters in the film, I found his account of Candie the most memorable.
A very close second is Samuel Jackson’s portrayal of Stephen, an old slave, the major domo of the plantation, and one who has been with the family for nearly three generations. As a result Stephen has so much influence in the household that he can even sip his master’s best cognac in the privacy of the library. This role is also a divergence for Jackson. As Stephen, Jackson is the most dangerous, and malicious character of the story. (Jackson has also been ignored for his work).
The film, by the way, is not without humor. There is a particular scene where a band of prototype KKK pursues the heroes to capture them and lynch. They are hindered, however, by the fact that there hoods made form pillow cases have eye holes that are cut much too small for them to see through. The argument that ensues among regarding the situation is one of the funniest sequences ever written. It provides a welcomed respite amidst all the gore.
The film is an impossible salad combined of elements that stretch plausibility. It requires that viewer to suspend any pretense of historical accuracy. On the other hand it is, in an n odd way, a statement about good overpowering evil even though the methods themselves could be judged evil. Believe or not, my dear reader, this film like all of Tarantino’s film does make a moral statement. It is not easy to watch at time, but Tarantino is a master craftsman at outing together a motion picture. He knows his craft. He is an expert at creating something that draws the audience into the story. He outfits his characters with clever dialogue and his films, although rather long are well paced.
This is not a film I would recommend for children or the weak of heart. In the midst of all the violence that has taken place in the real world in recent times, a great deal of caution regarding the presentation of this material is perhaps in order. I certainly would not take a young person to see this film. However, should you choose to walk into the theatre and devote nearly three hours, and if you can put the blood and gore into proper perspective you might admit that this is a rather good film.
However, as always, this is just my opinion. See the film and judge for yourself. However, do leave the kids at home.