A filmmaker's love for his art can be infectious – we've seen it for a good forty years from Martin Scorsese – and there's no working filmmaker I can think of who can, more often than not, infect his audience with that same love and admiration that Quentin Tarantino does. I look at his body of work and there's barely anything I don't think is not only good but phenomenal. It is personal preference; certainly everyone and their mothers (or even grandmothers) has their thoughts on Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, even Death Proof and the lesser known but likable short 'The Man from Hollywood' from Four Rooms. Now we come to the full-blown western, or the spaghetti western (ala Leone, Corbucci, etc), or, scuese me again, the “Southern” as Tarantino has called Django Unchained. How does it live up to his past works? On first viewing – smashingly well, and still with surprises.
When Jamie Foxx's Django is plucked out by Christoph Walt'z bearded dentist Dr. King Schultz (last name 'Freeman'? Perhaps that's a misnomer, I can't tell, or simply a description of who he is), he is disheveled and shaking after walking for days. He is freed by Waltz from his masters for a simple reason: Django knows what the three Brittle brothers look like, and King needs to find them for his bounty – dead or alive. After finding them on a plantation (this itself classic Tarantino, full of absurd humor with a particular flamboyant attire Django puts on himself like French aristocracy, and then horror with flashbacks of slave whippings and torture, and commupance in brutal, quick-witted style, not to mention Don Johnson as a wry plantation owner), and doing what must be done, a sort of mentor/pupil/friendship develops between King and Django. But training isn't all – Django wants to track down his wife Brunhilda, being kept somewhere in the south. Cue the second half of the film from here.
If I described the plot it doesn't sound too complex. Nor would Kill Bill (maybe 'Basterds' to a little more extent past 'killing Nazis). It's what this filmmaker does with his locations, with these actors who he has cast all so they can show off everything that they got – even Jonah Hill, in just one scene among a bunch of pre-KKK clansmen who have a goofy but very funny argument about the eye-holes in their hoods – that counts so. I don't know how much passion Tarantino had going into the project, though for me I was slightly (though only slightly) concerned on a few particulars, mostly to do with collaborators: Sally Menke, his long-time editor, passed away and this would be his first film without her; ditto producer Lawrence Bender (what happened there, who knows), as well as reports over the summer of various actors leaving the film due to the ol' 'scheduling conflicts' or just (with Anthony LaPaglia's character, who I assume Tarantino replaced himself to play late in the film) walked off completely. Was this a troubled production, not to mention at 165 minutes, his longest run-time?
From what I can tell, it's still the same glorious work of this writer/director from before. In fact he's going MORE ambitious in a way, or just trying new things that impressed me. For once, or maybe since Jackie Brown, his hero is someone who doesn't have bloon on his/her hands already prior to the start of the story. Django is a noble, smart guy, even as a slave he needs some basic education (he learns to read off wanted posters), but picks up Dr. Schult'z lessons very quickly. It really becomes a mythic story for this character, not least compared to classic German folklore (Brunhilda is a famous character in a German fairy tale, this getting a very nice- yes, 'nice'- scene between Django and Schultz by a fire late at night), and I loved seeing his journey from start to finish. Especially when it comes time to get to Candieland.
|I'm the king of the slave-world.|
While I was liking the movie quite a bit for the first half as a fun bounty hunter-and-pupil story, with some hints at Django's past (i.e. wicked-eyed Bruce Dern makes a cameo), and lots of linguistically-magnificient dialog/delivery from Tarantino and Waltz (what a combination once again!), it's when we get to DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, and by proxy his sort of Dick Cheney pulling the strings (Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson), that the film becomes another suspense masterpiece like the sections of 'Basterds' that are remembered most fondly. Django has to be very careful, as well as Schultz, in getting Brunhilda out of Candie's hands, and these scenes get deeper than just fun: it's menacing, intense, and the dialog stretches so far that Tarantino is walking a dental-floss-thin tightrope as to keep the audience with it all.
The acting, suffice to say, makes up so much of what is great here that it meets Tarantino so much of the time. I have never, and you may have not either, seen DiCaprio play such a villain before, one so... used to his own brutality, with his pointy-bearded-devil chin and cigarette holder, he's a classic villain for any movie, but so much more sadistic due to his time and place, a fourth or fifth generation plantation owner raised by slaves, loving to see them brutally beat the crap out of each other, and here and there (be warned) eaten by dogs. But behind him is Sam Jackson. You almost forget how perfect, every note and line spoken and step taken, he is in all of Tarantino's films (Jules, Ordell Robie), but here it's something else: who do you ahte more, the slave master or the slave that becomes a sort of 'master' of the house? Jackson plays Stephen as a very old man, yet one who's mind is razor-sharp, sensing everything, and we may fear him even more than Candie... that is, until he pulls out a certain skull from a box. But I say too much.
Go see Django Unchained, as the best kind of counterprogramming of the season (Les Miserables), or better yet pair it up with Lincoln and make it a grand-old filmmaker's masters course on how to look at the Civil war just before (this film, 1858) and the end (1865). It's very bloody, musically awe-inspiring, Foxx has never been better, and it asks you to take it on its own brazen, half-cartoonish-half-frightening/shockingly accurate terms. It's major work by a confident master-remixer of genre. If anything I can say is disappointing, ironically enough, it's the first Django, Franco Nero, who has his own cameo at one point, which stops the movie cold for a scene we all saw in the trailer.