‘I like the way you die, boy,’ utters Django, the character played by lead Jamie Foxx. It’s a perfect summation of the events in Quentin Tarantino’s new western film, ‘Django Unchained’. There will be blood, and vengeance, and death. Lots of death.
Just remember: the ‘D’ is silent.
‘Django Unchained’ plays like a beautiful dirge, invoked against the various enemies Django and his would-be liberator, Dr. King Schultz (eloquently brought to life by Christoph Waltz), encounter as they engage in the bounty hunting business. Tarantino infuses the script and direction with a somewhat farcical air, while simultaneously paying homage to the spaghetti westerns of yore.
Everything about ‘Django Unchained’ is evocative; the 60’s-inspired font, Tarantino’s beautifully captured moments of death (such as the blood spattering against the pale flowers), and the eclectic (and at times thematically anachronistic) soundtrack. Tarantino’s screenwriting skills are as sharp as ever, not only giving us a credible story (as credible as old westerns can be when re-focused through the memory and homage Tarantino applies to page and film; a copy of a copy, media consuming itself and being reborn) but also some extremely sharp humor. Who could have ever imagined a costume change would be as funny as when Django chooses his first new outfit as a bounty hunter? Or making the ignorance of something as awful as the Ku Klux Klan to be downright hilarious?
Yet Tarantino accomplishes all of this while providing unflinching views of the racism of that era, from the overt use of the N-word by whites to the concept of a black slave trader to the subtle ‘class’ distinctions between slaves who worked in the house and those who worked out in the field. These are complex and sensitive issues that Tarantino doesn’t shy away from but never glorifies. There is justice be had, and Django serves it in typical Tarantino style.
Leonardo DiCaprio serves in a supporting (but critical) role as a plantation owner who has custody of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). DiCaprio’s performance in particular is brilliant, because he never descends too far into the satirical edge that Tarantino’s script brings to the table. In what could have been easy role in less-skilled hands to indulge in the cheese factor, DiCaprio relishes in the complexity his Calvin J. Candie provides. From Southern to deadly intensity to a subtext of a questionable closeness with his sister, DiCaprio is a joy to behold on the screen, and no one else could have captured this character and done it justice the way he did. The early awards buzz for DiCaprio is well-deserved.
I laughed when we left the movie theater because my one brother nailed Samuel L. Jackson’s performance: ‘It was Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson’. If you enjoy his work, you’ll be right at home here, as Jackson provides a humorous performance as an old trusted slave who runs Candie’s plantation. If you have seen any of Jackson’s previous performances, you know it will eventually lead to a profanity-laden diatribe at some point in the film. ‘Django Unchained’ is no different.
There are so many other pieces of ‘Django Unchained’ that are intriguing, disturbing, or simply hilarious in-jokes. ‘Candieland’. Spotting Tarantino’s cameo. The significance of the woman with the red scarf covering her mouth and whether she is a reference to an obscure Golden Age Western comic book hero. The ‘origin’ of the KKK hoods. And more, no doubt.
‘Django Unchained’ is another winner from Tarantino, with some of the sharpest dialogue and direction I’ve seen in any of his films. While the largest complaint I would lodge against the film is the (what I consider) out-of-character action one of the leads makes late in film, I could understand it from a metatextual sense: it leads into one of Tarantino’s patented gun battles, filled to the brim with the over-the-top gore. After the skillful job Tarantino did in getting us there, it’s easily forgivable.