Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Quentin Tarantino, director & writer
Starring: Jamie Foxx (Django Freeman), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin J. Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda Von Shaft), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Don Johnson (“Big Daddy” Bennett), Bruce Dern (Curtis Carrucan), Franco Nero (Amerigo Vessepi), Jonah Hill (Randy), Tarantino (mining employee)
Can Quentin Tarantino make a serious statement about slavery? He is up for several NAACP awards for Django Unchained, his new film about a former slave who takes bloody revenge against American Southerners in 1858, just before the Civil War. There’s no doubt that Tarantino loves controversy and believes that he’s saying something important about a pernicious institution that has poisoned American democracy since its inception and continues to exist in Asia and, ironically, Africa.
The crucial problem in assessing Tarantino is his position as a pop cultural figure. He’s a Hollywood celebrity, a star writer-director acclaimed for his bizarre but effective movie mash-ups, which remix “B” genre flicks and actors with important artistic and political ideas. In Kill Bill, he combined the dynamics of samurai and noir films to make a feminist statement. And in his previous hit, Inglourios Basterds, he turned the Holocaust history upside-down, offering a fantasy where a Jewish led assassination attempt succeeds in killing all the major Nazis including Hitler a year before World War Two actually ended.
Now, in a film that has likely broken the record for the use of the “n” word, Tarantino is at it again. His film certainly endorses the rage of Django Freeman, a former chain gang slave, but will audiences truly engage with the question proposed by Tarantino: is it right or just to enslave and brutalise another human being?
I think not. Django Unchained is an effective and entertaining film. It has artistic ideas and, as always, brilliant dialogue. Audiences will enjoy it—if they can handle the over-the-top violence and often obscene language. But will Tarantino’s crowd feel involved enough to change the world? Not bloody likely.
Revenge fantasy; revisionist historical epic; western—redone as a “southern;” road movie (but not with cars)
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an eccentric German-born bounty hunter frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and his fellow chain-gang slaves by killing one of their “masters”’ and leaving the other helpless and exposed to the tender mercies of his former “property.” Schultz needs Django to identify the Speck brothers, brutal minions for slave owners, who are his next bounty. Django joins willingly and participates in the killing of the brothers who had sent Broomhilda, his wife, to another owner, states away from the plantation where they had met.
Intrigued by Django’s mission, to free Broomhilda, Schultz recounts a version of the revenge laden tale from Wagner’s Ring cycle. When Django informs Schultz that his Broomhilda can also speak German because she was a “house slave” to German “masters,” the bounty hunter resolves to free her and reunite the couple.
After a winter of bounty hunting, Django and Schultz head off to free Broomhilda from the clutches of Calvin J. Candie (DiCaprio), a truly frightening owner. In Candieland, the owner’s estate, they have to deal with another terrifying figure, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the toughest white-loving house slave of them all. After much intrigue and violence, Django is able to free Broomhilda from Candieland—but only at a terrible price in terms of loss of life.
Tarantino has remarked that the actors who handle his quirky dialogue the best are Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. They’re superb as Schultz and Stephen—and perfectly positioned as mortal enemies throughout the film. Matching them is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is wonderfully over-the-top as slave owner Candie.
The big disappointment in the film is Jamie Foxx, who doesn’t seize the opportunity offered to him by Tarantino to make Django into a huge cult figure. While he eventually rises to the occasion, Foxx’s performance is a case of too little, too late. Too bad!
Might as well add “the script” to that line: with Tarantino, you get both. He’s a true auteur.
Love him or hate him, one thing is certain. Tarantino is compulsively watchable—unless you hate violence and current pop culture. Here, he keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with lots of exciting scenes and colourful characters. Is it Pinter? No—but millions will enjoy this latest entry by Quentin Tarantino.
And I’m one of them.