Film review: Ultraviolent ‘Django Unchained’ a Provocative Tall Tale

DJANGO UNCHAINED 1Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest historically tinted genre mashup (following 2009’s Inglorious Basterds). This time, slavery in the pre-Civil War South is the focus as Shaft meets A Fistful of Dollars in an ultraviolent, provocative tall tale.

To get it out of the way (at least in this review) I think Spike Lee has a point about the director/writer’s use of a certain racist pejorative – though I don’t advocate boycotting the movie as he does over the larger issue of how slavery is stylistically presented in Django Unchained. Yes, Quentin, the word was used then and now, but after hearing it so often in your previous films and this one I think you are obsessed with it.

DJANGO UNCHAINED 2But this movie is about more than the controversies that understandably attach themselves to Tarantino’s works, or the use it makes of 1970s “Blaxploitation” and 1960s “Spaghetti Western” film genre elements to style its story. In a continuing thread from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction forward it’s homage to B-movie staples, but it’s also an updating of those models for contemporary audiences. And like much of his work there’s so much gory violence that somewhere the ghost of Sam Peckinpah is smiling.

The film is set two years before the Civil War. German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is tracking the nefarious Brittle brothers and needs the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to ID the siblings. After taking Django from slave traders Schultz promises to free him once he has the Brittles either dead or alive.

DJANGO UNCHAINED 3Django helps his new master accomplish that task and gains his freedom. That’s not the end of the saga, though – the two decide to stay together and hunt criminals as a team. And Django is on a personal mission to find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), which leads the pair to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of an infamous plantation called “Candyland.” Things seem to be going well until Candie’s trusted house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) smells a rat. That’s when all hell literally breaks loose.

Tarantino gives us plenty of appreciative nods to his creative sources – the music of Spaghetti Western scorers Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov as well as a cameo by Franco Nero, the original Django, are prime examples. He also provides plenty of adolescent-like humor; that includes a sequence where Tarantino appears as an Australian (I’ll leave out the details to avoid spoiling it).

DJANGO UNCHAINED 4But the heart of this movie is about revenge, and in this case revenge by a black man on the whites who’ve wronged him and his wife. Even in 2012 such a tale is rare – there have been far more Man With No Names than Shafts in our films and other storytelling mediums.

The acting is compelling. Foxx knows how to handle the anger and frustrations of his character, but he’s also quite tender and loving in his scenes with Washington, who also gives a fully-fleshed portrayal. Waltz deploys his droll delivery to the hilt, but he also reveals some heart in his character’s growing friendship with Django. DiCaprio, as the film’s production notes assert, is an antebellum Caligula, a spoiled and utterly mad man-child; Jackson is nothing short of terrifying as an evil mix of servant and mentor to DiCaprio’s plantation tyrant.

DJANGO UNCHAINED 5Tarantino could have easily chopped off 30 or more minutes from this lengthy feature and not missed it – perhaps he loves the monologues he provides his players too much – but the film doesn’t drag as it could have in less capable hands. And the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator and Hugo) and production designs of the late J. Michael Riva (The Color Purple, Buckaroo Banzai, The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man) certainly keep us firmly focused on Django Unchained’s sometimes cartoonish, often garish and ever-bloody world.

Django Unchained (unchainedmovie.com) opens today (Dec. 25) in wide release nationally. For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity, 165 min. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Wopat,  James Russo, Don Stroud and Franco Nero.

DJANGO UNCHAINED 6*Photos by Andrew Cooper courtesy The Weinstein Company.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).