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Movie Review: Django Unchained

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To be honest, I don’t read a lot of contemporary film critics. Every now and then I’ll check out a blog, but for the most part my critical reading comes via dead tree magazines like Film Comment or, um, Entertainment Weekly. Other film critics offer a foil to bounce my own ideas off of, but occasionally they do offer some inspiration or insight. Crosscuts, a local film blog hosted by Walker Art Center, posted something of note in its discussion of Django Unchained. Jeremy Meckler offers this observation: “Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving.

This is a wonderfully concise description of what Quentin Tarantino‘s movies are and do. From the very beginning, it’s been clear that Tarantino’s work is closer to what you may see in graphic novel than most films. His stories exist in worlds completely of his creation and his reference. This is a peculiar kind of fantasy film, closer to George Lucas’ hotrod-fueled imagination than might be obvious. His well-drawn characters are not pulled from reality, but by their own world and the world of the films he cites, or doesn’t bother to cite, as inspiration.

In the new film by Tarantino, Django, a freed slave, studies under an accomplished and enlightened bounty hunter as a means to secure his freedom. Along the way, the two of them agree to join forces to find and rescue his wife from slavery.

Tarantino films are a sort of alternate history, history as expressed through his memory of genre. History expressed as genre. This seems to be the only way to see Django: Unchained in its intended perspective. You certainly can’t take this as reality. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a wonderful character which brings an epic scope to Django’s (Jamie Foxx) heroic crusade to save Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). However, he brings a different kind of mythic too. In many ways, he acts as a divine guide might in other mythologies, arriving when he needs to and leaving when he must. Not quite omnipotent, but close enough.

Dr. King Schultz is a creature of the past and the future, but not credibly of the time of the story. He is somehow immune to the invisible racism which Western culture is still struggling to shrug off.

Dr. King Schultz, bounty hunter. (Christoph Waltz)

 

Django himself is a classic hero on a classic quest. To think that he is out for revenge is to miss the point and also debase the spirit he embodies. Time after time, he is tempted by senseless violence and he doesn’t succumb to its immediate satisfaction. He reminds himself that he has to do what he must to liberate Broomhilda, but any premature action will jeopardize that. Django may appear to an angel of vengeance, but “in point of fact” he is an angel of love.

This powerful dedication is drawn into further contrast by the plentiful and cheap racist epithets, as well as the well-placed jokes about killing white people. The wounds of racism are beneath him, he must see beyond the racist world in order to complete his quest. Lesser men see Django as a slave in revolt, Dr. King Schultz sees him, correctly, as a dragon slayer.

Big Daddy (Don Johnson), the white devil.

The villains of this world are among Tarantino’s best. First Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and then Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) bring the stereotyped plantation owner into devilish relief. Big Daddy is a methodical man of cruel business. While he employs the demonic Brittle Brothers to enforce his will, it’s clear he sees himself as only following the order of business. His is a cold cruelty.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) breathes fire.

Calvin Candie, on the other hand, tries to keep the genteel mask that Big Daddy wears well, but his sadism is easier to see. His pretense at refinement fails every time his eyes catch the light of nearby violence. DiCaprio brings something terrible to the practiced grin and glee of Candie. His plantation is not called Candieland by accident. The closer Candie’s nature rises to the surface, the more sweet congeniality he has to pour on to hide it.

Saying violence is excessive in a Tarantino movie is like saying there is too much guitar in heavy metal music. Exploitation violence, neo-noir violence, and to a limited extent, martial arts violence are all elements in his director’s kit. Likewise, it is evidence of his skill and intent that one seldom falls over into the other. The tough-guy kills of Reservoir Dogs are not the same material as the fantasy blood splatter of Kill Bill and Django. Tarantino wisely uses this surreal sort of bloodletting to signal the essential unreality of his story. Again, this filmmaking is closer to comic book art than neo-realist New Wave.

Django (Jamie Foxx) brings fire and light.

Cinematography has traditionally been a weak point for Tarantino. Mood and tone are generally created through style and music, while camera and editing are frustratingly secondary. The Kill Bill films were unusually visual, but even then the imagery was set aside from the flow of the film, rather than integrated into it. Imagery should tell the story, not decorate it.

Django Unchained is a giant step toward cinematic filmmaking. Color, shadow and camera placement all serve as indicators of where Django’s quest is at. Dark woods, cold mountains and dusty towns say as much about Django’s state of mind as the dialogue around him. When the final conflict arrives and the spirit of vengeance is let loose, a hard light descends and burns everything it touches. This theatrical touch heightens the unreality of the furious gunplay it colors. This is a divine light, if not entirely holy.

“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance”

My interest in Tarantino’s filmmaking reached nadir at Death Proof. Likewise, he himself has explained that film was a dark night for his directorial work. Inglorius Basterds showed a willingness to move into more accomplished filmmaking, and Django Unchained demonstrates he is a mature director who could surpass his early films. Prior to release, he expressed doubts about making future films and instead becoming a film critic. Filmmaking is a wearying process, and I hope that after a break he will pick up where he left off with Django Unchained. Maybe it is where he intends his myth-making to end, and if so, there are worse ways to ride into the sunset.

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About T.A. Wardrope