Django Unchained

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson

I started off this morning playing Santa Claus for my three year old daughter.  Suffice it to say that watching a western set during slavery with a significant body count was not exactly how I thought my Christmas night would end.  However, Quentin Tarantino films are always worth the effort.

Django Unchained is set in 1858, shortly before the Civil War.  Django (Jamie Foxx) is part of a group of slaves being transported through Texas in chains.  Their caravan is stopped by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Dr. Schultz is a bounty hunter and he is looking for a slave who can identify the Brittle brothers, a group of murderers wanted dead or alive.  Django can identify all three brothers.  Dr. Schultz then frees Django and partners up with him to track down the Brittle brothers.  He agrees to share part of the bounty for the brothers with Django and “free” him once the fugitives have been killed.

Dr. Schultz discovers however that there is more than meets the eye to Django.  Not only is he a natural marksman, but he also has a story.  Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) attempted to escape their plantation.  They were caught by their “master”, viciously whipped, and branded.  The owner, not having a need for slaves with a fighting spirit, sold them off separately at a slave auction.  Django is desperate to find his wife. 

Moved by Django’s plight, which is similar to the German fairytale for which Broomhilda is named, Dr. Schultz agrees to partner with Django to make some money “bountyhunting” and ultimately help Django find his wife.  Broomhilda, however, will not be easy to reclaim as she has been sold to Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the largest plantation owners in the south.  The film follows the two on their quest to save Broomhilda.

Django Unchained is a powerful movie that gives a window into the brutality and savagery of American slavery, but with a twist.  I know there are many persons who will criticize the film, some without having seen it (i.e. Spike Lee).  But Tarantino does not sugarcoat the plight of slaves.  They were treated like animals—whipped, chained, raped, beaten, denigrated, tortured and ripped from their families at an owner’s whim.  What Tarantino does, in a manner similar to what he did in Inglorious Basterds, is twist the tale to empower the oppressed and allow them to take revenge against those who have wronged them. 

The acting in the film is stellar.  Jamie Foxx delivers on a number of different levels.  He is at times submissive, at times angry, cool and curious.  But he also is vulnerable and you can feel the love and concern for his wife shining throughout the film.  Leonardo DiCaprio also gives quite a turn as the obnoxious, evil, not too bright, rich owner of Candieland.  Samuel L. Jackson is a scene stealer as the hilarious and brilliantly sinister "Uncle Tom" who is the true mastermind behind Candieland.  Christoph Waltz, however, steals the show.  Waltz delivers the best dialogue in the film; and he effortlessly infuses his bounty hunter character with a sense of right and wrong, and a wicked wit.  There is a scene where his character cracks when exposed to the true unspeakable horrors of slavery, and it is one of the most powerful scenes in the film.  I would not be surprised to see Mr. Waltz nominated for another Oscar.

The cinematography and style of the film is vintage Tarantino.  It has the feel of a 1970’s film and even opens with a cheesy sounding song about Django.  But the score also includes tracks from Tupac and John Legend, so there is this crazy fusion of modern music with an 1850's western.  Somehow, Tarantino makes it work. 

With all of that being said, I was not completely enamored with Django Unchained.  Part of my issue is that Tarantino has set the bar so high for himself that I expected something mind-blowing.  Django is a pretty straight-forward western, and is told in a linear fashion without various subplots and multiple characters.  There are not a lot of moving parts here, which is a huge deviation from Tarantino’s normal style.  As a result, there are pacing issues and at times the film drags and is not as sharp as what I’m accustomed to from Tarantino.

In addition, this film is testosterone driven in a manner that marginalizes the female characters.  Tarantino has written some fairly strong female characters for Pam Grier, Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and Melanie Laurent to name a few.  In Django Unchained, Kerry Washington is reduced to crying, whimpering and looking pretty.  As a fan of Scandal, color me disappointed.

Django Unchained earns a strong 0.03% rating.  Django is action-packed, thought-provoking and filled with stellar performances from its impressive cast.  On a final note, I will say that since this is a Tarantino western, there is a substantial amount of violence, particularly shooting.  As I reflected on the film, my mind could not help but wander to the Connecticut shootings and cringe.  If you are squeamish about violence, this is not the film for you.