Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Quentin Tarantino Turns the Slavery Drama on Its Head with the Epic Western, "Django Unchained"
The western genre, even with its finest O.K. Corral tumbleweed toss, hasn't really been kind to its minority characters. In fact, many characters of color (the few they had) were played by white actors. But this Christmas filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is pushing their stories to the forefront with a western-styled dramedy set two years before the Civil War that follows a recently freed slave (Jamie Foxx), who embarks on a quest to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of brutal slave-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Much like his previous film Inglourious Basterds, with Django Unchained Tarantino treads the very thin line between enhanced drama and comedy with a film that eagerly takes as many risks as it pushes the boundaries of telling a story like this. There are genuine tear-jerking moments, and some which are even uncomfortable to watch, that are finely balanced with knee-slapping spaghetti western antics borrowed from a number of those that came before it, including Sergio Corbucci's Django in 1966. For instance, a flashback scene as heavy as Broomhilda (Washington) getting whipped by her master is quickly countered by a scene which shows an implacable Django (Foxx) plotting with the help of a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue her and kill every (white) man who's had a part in the matter. In other words, this is not your typically depressing cotton-picking-on-the-plantation slavery movie; rather, it's a Defiant Ones-esque buddy film that smartly uses a realistic era to redefine the western film.
But before that really gets under way, we meet Waltz's character Dr. King Schultz (which may or may not be Tarantino's wink at a Dr. Martin Luther King reference). He's a wise-talking bounty hunter posing as a "doctor" to his unsuspecting victims. He's also a non-threatening German white who just so happens to be in favor of the abolition of U.S. slavery, which makes him a reluctant but liable comrade to Django, who he meets on a job. You can tell Waltz is having fun with the role as he delivers each of Schultz's lines with just the right amount of snark at every situation at he's placed in. Schultz needs Django for his latest task, so he locates him and hijacks his and other slaves' transport killing their captors and unleashing Django.
Together the two travel across the country--Schultz to complete a series of jobs and Django to be his right hand man. But Django has another mission in mind--he's going to use this opportunity to gladly assist Schultz in the killing spree of several white men--most of whom own slaves--as he works his way to Candie's plantation, Candyland.
Foxx plays Django as a very calm and collected man, without making him a woefully tragic archetype similar to the many slave characters before him. Rather, Django, donning a cowboy hat and a gun belt, carries a chip on his shoulder and a hole in his heart due to the years-long separation from his beloved. Once he loses the chains and gets his cowboy makeover, he becomes the Charles Bronson of slavery westerns, both angering and perplexing his white counterparts with his peculiar confidence (they stare in awe at a black man on a horse). Foxx embodies this protagonist, illuminating the fact that he may not be the smartest guy, but he's certainly got the drop on all these jokers who've tried to play him for a dunce all of his life. And true to many Tarantino characters, Django slips on a cool exterior duping the fellas around him and bringing swagger back to the cowboy game.
And speaking of atypical characters, Django Unchained is full of them. Although there are no predictable victims in the film, it does keep in tune with the inevitable damsel in distress role that Washington impressively tackles and makes neither feeble nor overtly empowered, but rather intelligent and with a mind of her own.
But it is her overzealous antagonists, played by DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Calvin's ever so servile Uncle Tom-like right arm, Stephen), that provide the movie's most sinister moments. In an unusual role for the actor, DiCaprio nails his portrayal as the malignant and money hungry Calvin who's sternly protective of his property (Broomhilda). He bulldozes through each scene and disappears in the role, making you forget every single character he's played before. It's dirty, it's vile and it's almost painful to watch at times. Then he says something dumb, which keeps everything else in perspective and lends to the tone of the movie.
Same goes for Jackson's Stephen, who delivers his best performance in much too long. A deeply complicated character, he's the only one who doesn't abide by the Tarantino rule of "what you see is what you get." He's duplicitous, shady as all get out and compelling to watch. His inclusion in Django's story is a smart one and not one that is seen often these days in film, even in the most epic of slave dramas around.
Django Unchained is a ruthless and romantic epic that is also filled with unbridled entertainment that challenges audiences, rather than coddling them. Even with its very alpha male arc, Tarantino is delicate in capturing each detail--down to the costumes, the makeup and even the sometimes abhorrent yet authentic vernacular and atrocious events. At its best, the film not only entertains but allows audiences to experience a wide range of emotions as any good film should, while it simultaneously opens wounds and sparks a conversation. You can't ask for much more than that.
Django Unchained is in theaters December 25th.