“My name is Django. The D is silent.”
King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) slowly rides his dentist’s wagon toward two slave traders and their recent purchases, a line of black men all bound together with shackles, bare-chested in the cold Texas night. The outwardly affable Schultz is looking for a particular slave purchased at a specific plantation. The two slave traders aren’t very receptive to their visitor, but Schultz is convinced the slave is in their possession. After some ‘negotiation’, Schultz soon meets Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz is a bounty hunter desperate to find the Brittle brothers, three sadistic plantation workers with a price on their head. Schultz doesn’t know what they look like and Django does. They make an agreement; if Django helps Schultz, the bounty hunter will help his new friend find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been purchased by another ruthless plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). But there are many obstacles, including an old slave (Samuel L. Jackson) who is very devoted to Candie.
So begins “Django Unchained”, the new film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. And from the moment the film begins, there is no mistaking this film as anything but a Tarantino film. Over the top dialogue and violence, amusing character interactions, a mish-mash of filmmaking genres and actors at the top of their game are all in evidence in the masterful director’s newest film.
Tarantino’s well-publicized beginnings - working at a video store and devouring every film there – have inspired and/or shaped every film he has made. Some of these films include Blaxploitation titles about slaves who fight back against their oppressive masters and these provide the inspiration for “Django”.
Some of these films were made by filmmakers with small budgets and less talent. Others were made on the cheap to capitalize on a specific audience. Some of these films are remembered today because of the actors involved. Some; because of the outrageous, over-the-top action. But most of these are, let’s face it, terrible films.
The beauty of Tarantino’s films is that he takes inspiration from these bad films and filters it through his far superior filmmaking skills and larger budgets. He’s giving Five Star treatment to B or C grade material. When he does this, he elevates it while still retaining the feel and style of the originals, creating films that are unique and extremely watchable.
From the moment the film begins, you recognize all of the familiar hallmarks of Tarantino’s style. Schultz often uses verbal dexterity to momentarily confuse the people he is dealing with, giving him the upper hand. Tarantino is a skilled writer and his dialogue is usually great, revealing unique and interesting things about his characters. If anything, the writer occasionally suffers from a lack of editing and his dialogue goes on for too long and for no other reason than to show how great his writing is. On the flip side, he also frequently features characters who are largely silent, but still manage to get their ideas across. Uma Thurman’s The Bride is a great example of this. Hell-bent on revenge, she has heard everything before making her much more interested in results. Django is very similar. Extremely quiet and introspective, he spends a lot of time standing by, watching, as Schultz talks his way into and out of various situations. Most of the characters in “Django” can be traced back through Tarantino’s other films. And even though we have seen the ancestors of these characters before, the director does a great job of making these characters exciting and memorable.
One of the hallmarks of Tarantino’s previous works is less evident here. In the past, Tarantino has cast some of the actors who made his inspirational films so memorable as the leads in his films, giving them a significant showcase to reinvigorate their careers. John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, David Carradine, to name a few, got jumpstarts from their appearances in Tarantino’s works. Lately, as the budgets of his films continue to increase, and his films become more important to the production company, he has been leaning more heavily on A-List talent. Look at “Jackie Brown” - Pam Grier and Robert Forster are the stars; Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda and Samuel L. Jackson are the co-stars. In “Django”, the balance has shifted. Some interesting actors pop-up in small roles – Don Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, and M.C. Gainey – but these moments don’t have the impact of someone like Grier starring in a film. The thrill of rediscovering a good actor is one aspect of what makes some of Tarantino’s films so great.
Jamie Foxx is very good. From the moment he introduces himself – “The D is silent” – you get what he and Tarantino are trying to do. Foxx is playing The Black Man with No Name, based on a character made famous by Clint Eastwood in his early westerns. This is a grittier, bloodier, Tarantino-ized version of the character, but the inspiration is clear. Even when Django is standing still, observing, a subtle facial expression or change in body language helps build his character and illustrate the feelings he has difficulty expressing.
Christoph Waltz is very good as King Schultz, the bounty hunter who decides traveling with a black man, in the South, before the Civil War, is the best and easiest way to track his prey. Perhaps the best thing about his character is that he doesn’t seem to care what others think. If they voice an objection, he spins a tale to convince them otherwise or spins a tale to distract them until he can physically persuade them. Schultz can’t physically overpower his adversaries, and they frequently beat him to the draw, but once he starts speaking, he uses words to beat them. You get the sense Tarantino had a lot of fun writing and creating this character.
Tarantino is a very good writer and each of his films is filled with great dialogue. If anything, they sometimes have too much dialogue and we spend too much time sitting, watching: a single conversation between characters that really does nothing but show how clever the writer is. In Schultz, Tarantino is able to show off his skill, but uses his talents to create an interesting, memorable character.
They soon learn Django’s wife, Broomhilda, was purchased by Candie (DiCaprio), a plantation owner who likes to pit his male slaves against one another in Mandingo-style fighting. Mandingo fighting is something that was featured in some of those films Tarantino loved to watch and this is his opportunity to combine two of his very different influences. There is no evidence this type of thing happened in this era, but it is the crazy type of genre-busting Tarantino did so well.
DiCaprio clearly relishes playing a villain and he does it well. Candie is quiet and subtle, but no less menacing because of it. When he describes how he treats someone, or expects someone to act, it is clear that despite his tone, if his instructions aren’t followed, people will die. And we quickly learn he has an entire squadron of hired guns ready and willing to fight and die for their boss.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen, Calvin’s long-time, trusted slave who doles out punishment to the other slaves, gives orders to Candie’s hired guns and basically oversees all of the plantation operations.
When the group arrives at the plantation, the learn Broomhilda has been put in the Hot Box, at Stephen’s directions, to teach her some manners. Django stays cool, barely, but stares at Stephen with confusion, unable to comprehend how one black person could willingly put another black person in this situation. Throughout, Stephen shows allegiance to no one but Calvin and his sister, afraid to upset the order.
Waltz and DiCaprio are earning a lot of praise for their performances, but Jackson deserves as much praise. His performance is mesmerizing because you find yourself asking how this slave ended up in this place, ready and willing to dole out punishment and because Stephen is frequently put in his place by Candie, when he has overstepped his bounds or his owner disagrees. Candice seems to treat the older slave as a child, giving him a proverbial slap on the hand. And Stephen quickly laughs these moments off all too aware that if Candie’s mood were to change, he could end up in a Mandingo fight against someone twenty years younger and one hundred pounds heavier.
The most interesting thing about Broomhilda, Kerry Washington’s character, is that she grew up with German plantation owners, receiving a German name and learning their language. She uses this knowledge throughout, giving her a way to communicate in secret.
Many notable people take on small roles, adding flavor to the film, giving the viewer small surprises throughout. Some of them are so brief you might not catch them.
“Django” is an accomplished film made by a filmmaker working at the height of his talents. But Tarantino has a tendency to go on too long. In “Django”, part of the ending seems superfluous and gives the end a bit of an anti-climactic feeling. It almost becomes “too much”, shifting the balance to the wrong side. Almost.
Catch “Django” and revel in the delights only a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino can unleash upon you.