Have you always been alone?
Possessing close to a 3-hour runtime, Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering Django Unchained, is a bit of slog at times. He does an admirable job of keeping things moving at a fairly decent clip, yet I still couldn’t help but feel like I was losing half of my entire day while viewing this one. Is it worth the time? Mostly.
I’m still having a hard time figuring out just what it is about Tarantino’s work that inspires such a rabid following. Without question he’s got a stylistic vision that is different from his contemporary peers, but calling it original would be like claiming that everything Radiohead has done since OK Computer isn’t a complete rip-off of Brian Eno’s output in the 70s. Tarantino steals from the past, or to put it a nicer way, is heavily influenced by cinema of years gone by, to create his own vibrant new tales of physical violence. There’s nothing wrong with it, but let’s call it what it is, shall we?
The basic plot behind this predictably gory offering revolves around a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and a black slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) that he purchases to help him track down three wanted men, and then later frees. Along the way Schultz befriends Django and learns that he has a wife that he wants to free. Schultz offers to help him, if Django will agree to first help the doctor hunt bounties through the winter. And so a deal is struck.
Fast forward past winter, the two men arrive in Mississippi and discover that Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is owned by the third largest slaver in the area, Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio). The two cook-up a highly risky, devious plot involving a bait and switch scheme in order to free the girl, but can they successfully pull it off?
Of course, like just about every other film Tarantino has ever made, what makes this one work is also ultimately its undoing as well. The dialog is interesting enough sure (though still not as great as the Roger Avary days), but the anticipation of the ensuing bloodbath is what keeps one watching. When it finally does arrive though, it’s a bit anti-climactic. How many times can you shift the setting slightly and make the same movie over again before the audience finally catches on? Been there, done that.
It’s really the extraordinary performances of Waltz and Foxx that carry the film, especially with the limited range of DiCaprio’s abilities being stretched to their outer limits here. And let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson plays the part of Calvin Candle’s ruthlessly loyal house slave Stephen. He’s an older, slightly broken man who’ll do anything for his white master, including throwing members of his own race under the proverbial bus. Seeing Foxx and Jackson square off against each other during the film’s final act is a delight, even if predictably, one of them must meet with a bloody end.
The sad truth of Django Unchained is that it doesn’t really feel like it serves any purpose other than to entertain, which when examined in context with relation to the accuracy of the historical setting it places itself in, becomes quite shocking.
Tarantino has no qualms about throwing the “N” word around here or making slave action figures for adults to thrown money at. There’s something fundamentally wrong about doing these things only to entertain, devoid of any educational component. I found myself torn in two when it comes to my feelings on this one, much the way I felt after viewing The Help.
Not that I’m a fan of Spike Lee by any stretch, but I think he said it best when explaining why he would not be seeing the film via Twitter:
American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them. –Spike Lee
Still, if one can separate the fact from the fiction here, viewing Django Unchained becomes a regrettably engaging experience.
The best part of it all? Not the aforementioned acting or Samuel L. Jackson’s brilliant turn as a black hating slave. No, the best part is the sudden cameo appearance of Jonah Hill for absolutely no reason at all.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Best Picture (Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Christoph Waltz)
Cinematography (Robert Richardson)
Sound Editing (Wylie Stateman)
Writing-Original Screenplay (Written by Quentin Tarantino)
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