Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Premise: Set during the period of American slavery, a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) takes in a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and mentors him in the bounty hunting business. The two attempt to rescue Django’s wife, who is being held as a house slave on a southern plantation.
What Works: Django Unchained is a curious entry in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. On one hand it is consistent with the films that Tarantino has been making since Kill Bill, especially Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds, in that it adapts grindhouse and exploitation cinema for a contemporary audience. But on the other hand, Django Unchained demonstrates a clarity of purpose and level of discipline that has been absent from Tarantino’s recent movies and its more linear and streamlined filmmaking are reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. As with any Tarantino film, it is important to understand Django Unchained not just as a film in and of itself but also as a commentary on movies. In that respect, Django Unchained is quite similar to Inglorious Basterds; that film took on the genre of war films and examined what viewers get out of it and the divorce between the realities of history and warfare and the way they are presented to us on screen. Django Unchained operates in a similar way and is a more successful film than Inglorious Basterds because it is better made. As a result, this movie is not only among Tarantino’s best works; it is also one of his most daring films. Django Unchained draws on the blacksploitation movies of the 1970s like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft and then applies it to the history of slavery. In the process, Tarantino connects the racism of the past with the cinema of the present. This is a movie about the fear of blackness and specifically black men that Hollywood has been complicit in and the movie takes deliberate attempts at undermining it. At every turn the film makes black men figures of compassion and sympathy while questioning the cultural myth of the genteel antebellum American South as portrayed in movies like Gone with the Wind. This is seen most clearly in one of the best sequences in the film (and one of the funniest in Tarantino’s entire filmography): a pre-raid strategy meeting among members of the Ku Klux Klan that is clearly lampooning The Birth of a Nation. Django Unchained also portrays the viciousness of slavery, something that Hollywood films have generally avoided, and it is handled very well. This material is necessary to create drama but it could also become distasteful. The filmmakers stage, shoot, and edit these violent scenes in ways that are impactful and often uncomfortable while also maintaining the horror. Aside from the considerable thematic accomplishments of Django Unchained, it should also be recognized that this is a very good movie. It has some very impressive cinematography, especially in the outdoor sequences, and the set design has a lot of great detail to it. Christoph Waltz stars as the established bounty hunter who takes Django under his wing and Waltz is very good here; as he proved in Inglorious Basterds, he gets Tarantino’s writing in a way that few actors do. Also notable is Leonardo DiCaprio as a plantation owner. This is DiCaprio’s first role as a straight villain and he is mixes southern manners and slave owning barbarity in ways that are very unsettling.
What Doesn’t: If there is any notable story flaw to Django Unchained it is the transition of the title character from a slave to a bounty hunter. The transition exists and Jamie Foxx plays the role differently between the start of the film and the conclusion but there is a lack of gradation or subtly to his performance. Viewers going into Django Unchained expecting a shoot-‘em-up adventure movie like Lethal Weapon are not going to find it here, at least not for the bulk of the movie. There certainly is plenty of violence, some of it quite intense, and the film ends with a climactic showdown but because Tarantino is out to play on the conventions of action movies this is not always pleasant in the way that audiences may expect.
Bottom Line: Django Unchained is one of director Quentin Tarantino’s best films. He has made this a very thoughtful piece about race and history in the movies while it also manages to be a very well made picture.
Episode: #421 (January 6, 2013)