Part of a group of five slaves being forced to march barefoot through a forest in winter, Django (Jamie Foxx) is unexpectedly rescued by a German dentist name King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz no longer practices dentistry and has taken up a more lucrative and dangerous profession: Bounty hunter. Schultz has tracked down Django specifically because he has seen three particularly despicable outlaws called the Brittle Brothers. Schultz has no idea what they look like but Django does. They used to be associated with a plantation owner named Curtis Carrucan (Bruce Dern) who owned Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), also known as Hildy. The two tried to run away but were captured. As punishment, their master sold them separately, believing they would never see each other again. The Brittle Brothers doled out the punishment to Carrucan’s slaves, including whipping Hildy. After seeing Django handle himself in their first job together, Schultz makes him an offer: They should work together through the winter with Django learning the bounty hunting trade then Schultz will help him find Hildy. Schultz sees Django excel at bounty hunting and the pair makes a good team. In the spring, Schultz and Django learn Hildy is now owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and works on his huge plantation called Candie Land. Devising a plan to get in Candie’s good graces, Schultz and Django gain access to the plantation; but Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a longtime and extremely loyal slave of the Candie family for decades senses something about the two incognito bounty hunters isn’t right.
“Django Unchained” shares many characteristics with other Quentin Tarentino movies. First, the film owes a great deal of its style to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The camera work, the music, the over the top characters and a quiet anti-hero are just a few of the characteristics fans of this genre of film will notice. Tarentino loves to pay his respects to the styles of film he loved as he began to discover the art of moviemaking and he’s never been shy about showcasing that love in his work. He’s been accused of being too enamored with Asian, grindhouse and Euro-Westerns, and sometimes his films are a bit too precious; however, “Django Unchained” benefits from the added touches reminiscent of movies made by Sergio Leone and others.
The largely stylized violence in the film is another example of Tarentino’s style. The splashes of blood that burst forth as the bullets strike flesh look similar to when a large rock is dropped in a pond. Many times those who are shot are merely injured and their screams are bloodcurdling. The knees seem to be a favorite target to ensure the victim survives and suffers maximum pain.
The primary cast is made up of several Tarentino favorites including Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, and the supporting cast has several surprises that are fun to try and catch. “Dukes of Hazzard” star Tom Wopat has a small role along with Bruce Dern, James Remar (from “Dexter”), Don Johnson, Jonah Hill and Robert Carradine. Tarentino fans will also enjoy other of his movie buddies like stunt woman Zoe Bell and makeup artist and actor Tom Savini. The director also puts himself in the film in an explosive role. This much stunt casting could get distracting except many of these better known actors are nearly unrecognizable under beards, mustaches and layers of grime. It also doesn’t hurt that everyone seems to be perfectly cast and is having a great deal of fun.
If there is a stand out in this stellar cast, it would have to be DiCaprio. The way he plays Candie, as a self-important, slimy degenerate, makes you simultaneously like and hate him. His smile, filled with grey, mottled teeth, is both friendly and disgusting. He’s a man of wealth and perceives himself to be of the upper classes when he’s actually no better than the worst criminal. DiCaprio has a charisma that outshines his character’s evil nature until he needs to turn into the animal his actions betray him to be. It’s a really great performance that is award-worthy.
Also worthy of mention is Samuel L. Jackson. He’s especially loathsome as Stephen, a slave who is as bigoted against his own people as his owners are. While Stephen is elderly and stooped by decades of hard work, Jackson’s performance is charged with potential energy. If Stephen feels his master is in danger, he wouldn’t hesitate to spring into action as best he could. He has a powerful grip on the other slaves. Just as they must keep their eyes down when the masters are in the room, they do the same with Stephen. Jackson also gives Stephen the potty mouth that we’ve come to know and love in many of his other characters. I should point out that his use of one of his favorite curses, the insult that involves you being involved in an inappropriate way with your mother, apparently did not exist during the mid-1850’s and doesn’t come into common usage until a century later. We’ll forgive this linguistic oversight since an R-rated movie with Samuel L. Jackson wouldn’t be the same without that particular vulgarity.
The movie showcases the disgraceful way African-Americans were treated in the days of slavery. The “N-word” is tossed around casually and with no regard to how painful it is. Perhaps in the time the film is set, just prior to the Civil War, the word didn’t have the sharp edge of anger and hatred it does now; but its frequent repetition hammers home the inequity and ignorance of the time. That and the cruel treatment of the slaves depicted in the film often made “Django Unchained” difficult to watch. Ignorance and hatred is also turned on its head and used for humor; specifically a scene involving a group of hooded men who plan on killing Schultz and Django. Their stupidity plays out over a scene that perfectly encapsulates the ridiculous nature of racism.
“Django Unchained” is rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. I’m not sure I can count high enough to comprehend the number of people who are shown being shot. Many of these shootings produce a large splash of blood and sometimes exposed flesh. There is a particularly graphic scene of a slave being torn apart by dogs. There is a fight between to slaves for the amusement of their masters. It is bloody and includes the sounds of bones breaking, eyes being plucked from their sockets and a hammer blow to end the fight. There are a few brief flashes of nudity. None of them are of a sexual nature. Foul language is common throughout the film.
Quentin Tarentino’s last film, the revisionist history-filled “Inglorious Basterds,” earned the director numerous accolades including an Oscar nomination. “Django Unchained” is perhaps a bit too violent and racially charged to garner as much awards season love as did that film; however, it may be more deserving. The film is a wildly imaginative take on an ugly aspect of American history and it takes a great deal of courage to step into such dangerous waters. He should be rewarded for his bravery and for making a really entertaining film.
“Django Unchained” gets five guitars.
Two very different films open this week. Vote for the one you’d like me to see and review.
Promised Land—The plans of a multi-billion dollar oil company for a small town’s natural gas reserves run into unexpected resistance from a local, grassroots environmental group.
Texas Chainsaw 3D— Decades ago, residents of Newt, Texas, long suspected that the Sawyer family was responsible for the disappearances of many people, so vigilantes torched the Sawyer compound and killed every member of the family -- or so they thought.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any movie of his choice currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.