“Django Unchained” (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson
“Django! Django, have you always been alone? Django, have you never loved again?”
Marching across East Texas, chained to several other slaves, a melancholy figure drags forth through the dust and grime of the scorching desert. On his way to his new owner’s estate led by the Speck brothers, the figure pushes forward while being pursued by an unknown being. He is a lone soul carrying a long, pale, bleak expression on his face. His name is Django (Foxx), and he’s an African-American slave caught in the middle of a slave tradition set in the year 1858, just three years before the Civil War.
As nightfall sets in, a German man in a dentist cart pulls up and hails the Speck brothers. He introduces himself as Dr. King Schultz (Waltz). Schultz is clearly more intelligent and enlightened than the Specks as shown in the choice of words he uses. He then asks the Specks if any of the chained slaves have seen the Brittle brothers. Django comes forth and announces that he knows the Brittle brothers and can identify them. Schultz offers to buy Django, but his educated manner rubs the ill-mannered Specks the wrong way, and one of the Specks threatens to shoot him in cold blood.
In response, Schultz shoots and kills one brother and cripples the other. Having been crippled, the remaining Speck brother agrees to sell Django, and Schultz pays the man for both Django and the dead Speck’s horse, along with an official title to Django, and prepares to ride off. But before Schultz and Django take off into the cold night, he frees the remaining slaves (clearly, Schultz finds slavery abhorrent) and says they may either carry the remaining Speck brother back into town or shoot him and flee.
This bloody and powerful introduction leads forth to an awesome, wild, witty, rambunctious and bloody good time that makes yours truly very interested in visiting some of the old spaghetti Westerns of times past that inspired two-time Academy Award-winning writer/director Quentin Tarantino.
To create the ultimate homage to this classic genre, Tarantino has once again cast a group of extremely talented actors and actresses to tell his simple story of what the tagline describes as “life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance,” with all the right moves and elements to revolutionize the Western genre. Without boring you on what makes a great or classic Western, I’ll just examine the solid performances that propel the film’s story and the world it creates.
First of all, I’m not a huge fan of Foxx. I respect him as an actor and as a talented performer, but he’s not one of my favorites. But his determination, passion, transformation and complete method approach in the lead role of the film is what caught my attention. For the first time, I felt as if Foxx had finally stepped outside of his comfort zone, as he was able to strip away his ego and transform himself from the Academy Award-winning actor in “Ray” to a struggling slave who is on a desperate search to find his wife.
In the following scene, just after the film’s bloody opening, there’s a conversation between Django and Schultz where basically the entire plot of the film is mapped out. Schultz explains he needs Django to help him find and hunt down the Brittle brothers, because Django is the only one who knows what the brothers look like. In return, Schultz promises that he’ll give Django his freedom and he’ll help him find his wife who was taken from him. There’s a brief moment of silence before Django almost looks past Schultz’ stunning blue eyes staring deeply into his soul and responds with a determined tone, “Where we going?”
Although Waltz (Schultz) steals the scene with his spitfire performance and charming yet unorthodox behavior, the brief reactions from Foxx really stand out and mold the actor from helpless slave to deadly bounty hunter.
Secondly, two of my favorite actors in the business are in this film: Waltz and DiCaprio. Now, before any of those red flags go off, I just want everyone to know that DiCaprio is no longer the teen heartthrob we all know from James Cameron’s epic, “Titanic.” After working with legendary filmmaker, Martian Scorsese, I have to say he’s one of the few Hollywood actors who have really improved over the last decade.
After playing mostly suitable and endearing characters that can make any female melt into their shoes, here DiCaprio transforms himself into the sadistic and racist plantation owner by the name of Calvin Candie. Out of all the great Tarantino villains that have flickered across the sliver screen, Candie is up there along with Hans Landa, 50 percent of Stuntman Mike and Jules. Out of all the few great performances I’ve seen this year along with Waltz’s performance, DiCaprio was a close tie to the creepy and menacing performance Heath Ledger created for Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film “The Dark Knight.”
For example, the scene where everything has been set up in the very beginning of the film starts to unfold and comes to a screeching halt. Candie learns the truth about Schultz and Django’s visit from the nerve-wracking Steven (Jackson). In this scene, just like Tarantino’s last film, “Inglorious Basterds,” tension and suspense is being built from dialogue and performances.
In a small passage I’ve lifted from the film’s screenplay, you witness DiCaprio’s transformation from your stereotypical rich snob to brute of a human being.
“Under the laws of Chickasaw County, Broomhilda here is my property, and I can chooses to do with my property whatever I so desire! And if you all think my price for this lady here is too steep what I’m reliable to do is.” Candie very casually puts out his cigarette, grabs a ball pin hammer and slams Broomhilda’s (Washington) head down on the table. “I’m going to take this hammer here and beat her ass to death with it! Right in front of both of you!”
Unlike his former roles, where DiCaprio plays either the hero or the common man who is slightly off-kilter, here we have him playing a full-fledged villain. I have to say, his years working with the legendary Scorsese are starting to pay off.
Like most of the films I’m fond of, I can go on for hours about how much they mean to me, and what I know about them. I’m not a huge fan of films of the Western genre because I always thought they were boring, but now that I’m a little older and wiser, I can understand what my father and grandfather saw in them.
To sum it up, they’re good old-fashioned fun and like most of the recent Tarantino films, that’s what defines them. If “Kill Bill” can turn my attention onto the old samurai films of the 1970s, then “Django Unchained” has directed my curiosity toward the old spaghetti Westerns. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. I know for a fact that I’ll be one of the first ones to grab a copy on DVD April 16.
Four Out of Four Stars