The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, January 7, 2013

Django Unchained

Not everyone is a fan of director Quentin Tarantino. I understand that. He tends to rub people the wrong way at times in his verbosity and lack of filter. Within each of his movies, there are even moments I want to slap him, tell him to tone things down. But the best part? When he gets something right, he does it so ridiculously well it makes you appreciate how good a feature film can be. Enter 2012's Django Unchained.

Being transported following a slave auction in 1858 Texas, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued by a dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The good doctor has a proposal; Django knows what the Brittle brothers, three notorious outlaws, look like while Schultz cannot identify them. If Django travels with him and identifies him, Schultz will give him his freedom. Django agrees but with a caveat, he wants Schultz's help getting his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), also sold at an auction, back. The duo forms an unlikely partnership, the bounty hunter teaching the slave the ways of the business. The Brittle brothers await somewhere at a southern plantation, but Django and Schultz also find out that Broomhilda was purchased by Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of one of the biggest plantations in the South. What awaits the bounty hunter dentist and his slave apprentice?

Above all else, Quentin Tarantino (directing and writing the script here) loves movies. He truly loves them. His movies always reflect that. He grew up watching all sorts of movies -- spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation flicks, countless others -- and his movies typically work as a quasi-tribute to those movies he loves. When things are going well, it is going really well. As a viewer, I watch certain scenes and just inherently know 'This is what movies should be.' His movies are done on an epic scope, blending an incredible visual with drama and humor, performances that can shock and surprise whether they be workmanlike or highly memorable, a style in story and camerawork that sets it apart from the rest. Because Tarantino can get far too indulgent at times, it's easy to look past his freakish talent, but it's there just the same. If only there was a way to calm him down....just a little.

For a director with less than 10 feature films to his name, Tarantino has created an impressive, eclectic variety of movies. Not surprisingly, 'Django' defies any specific description. Is it a western? Yeah, sort of, but that's limiting. It takes place almost entirely in the deep South in 1858, long before our concept of the wild west ever began. This is a movie that in its rather verbose 165 minutes covers a whole lot of ground. It is at times incredibly difficult to watch, especially considering its rather blunt portrayal of slavery and violence. Whippings, dog attacks, the ever-present and constant use of the 'N-word,' it's all there, including a brutal fighting style called Mandingo, slaves fighting to the death with their bare hands for the enjoyment and entertainment of their masters. But ultimately, a movie that defies description is not a bad thing, not by a long shot. While it refers and pays tribute to countless other movies, it is most definitely its own movie.

The best thing going for 'Django' is the casting of Foxx and Waltz and the relationship that develops between the two men. The casting of the Django character was tricky, attracting names from Will Smith to Tyrese Gibson to Terrence Howard, but Foxx is a great choice. His character is likable and sympathetic while also giving a hard edge that shows how driven he is. Playing a part not dissimilar to his part in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Waltz is again a scene-stealer. Foxx is the anti-hero, Waltz the showier part as Dr. King Schultz. Tarantino's script does a fine job developing both men, especially Dr. Schultz as the movie delves deeper and deeper into their mission. It is the unlikeliest of pairings, but it is beyond perfect. Schultz takes him along purely for financial reasons (the badder the man, the bigger the bounty) but ends up looking to Django as an equal he insists on sticking with. I loved the two performances and hope both actors are rewarded with some award nominations in the coming weeks.

Actors and actresses want to work with Tarantino, and the biggest surprise in casting was Leonard DiCaprio as Southern plantation owner Calvin Candie. It is a gem of a performance. Like Waltz, it is big and showy and aggressive, but it never feels forced. DiCaprio takes the chance to work with a Tarantino script and runs with it. Seeing him in such an obvious but racially-charged role as a bad guy isn't a bad thing either. The real villain though? In my estimation, Samuel L. Jackson in a scene-stealing part as Stephen, Candie's head slave who looks out for himself, screw black, white and any other skin color. Washington too does a fine job in a not so great part as Broomhilda, the damsel in distress waiting for her true love to rescue her.

That should be enough for any movie, but it is a Tarantino movie so....yeah, it isn't enough. In varying roles look for Walt Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, James Remar, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Michael Parks, Tom Savini, and M.C. Gainey. The coolest appearance goes to the original Django himself, Franco Nero, appearing in a quick scene with Foxx that any fan of the 1966 spaghetti western should appreciate. They have a quick exchange and share a knowing look in a very cool scene.  

Another fixture in a Tarantino movie is the musical score, and he doesn't disappoint here. The actual Django theme from 1966 (Listen HERE) plays over the opening credits with composer Luis Bacalov's scores from several other movies used throughout the story. Other samples include Ennio Morricone's scores from Two Mules for Sister Sara, Violent City, Hornets' Nest, Hellbenders and others mixed in with Bacalov scores, and several rap songs (out of place to me). For the most part, the soundtrack fits well without being as aggressively blaring as certain Tarantino soundtracks.

How about another Tarantino fixture? Yep, it took me awhile, but here we are talking about on-screen violence, a staple in Tarantino films. For the most part, the director uses violence to shock and surprise, disgust and enthrall at the same time. It's quick and shocking and graphic. That's fine, the violence even played for some incredibly dark humor at times. For me though, even Tarantino goes too far in a late shootout that pushes the bounds I have for violence. Graphic and gratuitous is one thing, but it's such a ridiculously over the top sequence -- slow motion galore, blood squibs and clouds of bloody mist on steroids -- that it becomes disgusting. The violence is at its best in quick bursts, but when it lingers, it starts to become too much.

For a movie I liked a lot (maybe even loved, give me a couple days to think about it), it may sound like I'm too negative. 'Django' certainly has some negatives. It has some pacing problems just past the halfway point of the movie that it struggles to overcome. The first 110 minutes or so are nearly perfect while the second half of the story is still impressive but just not on the same level. The ending -- not surprisingly -- does not disappoint. It is a funny, impressive, moving, incredibly dark, smart, vicious, honest and highly entertaining movie. I could do whole reviews about single scenes, performances and countless other little things from this movie. It has flaws (don't be confused there), but when it works, I loved this movie, even enough to give it a four-star rating. Say what you want about Quentin Tarantino, but the man knows how to make a film that can bring together and/or divide an audience like nobody's business. Definitely check this one out.

Django Unchained (2012): ****/**** 


  1. "pacing problems just past the halfway point"

    yeah the second half dragged.

  2. I still enjoyed the second half, but the Candie Land scenes -- especially the dinner -- went on too long, dragging the story down to a sluggish pace. Still liked it a lot, just not as much as the first half.