'Django Unchained' Delivers: Amusing, Evil and Avenging
A slave becomes a superhero
Quentin Tarantino's films feature most cringe-worthy violence, are borderline offensive, and always over-the-top with no favors done for the faint of heart. And yet they frequently feature star-turning performances from actors you never realized had, until then, gone unchallenged otherwise, and a smattering of utterly delightful diatribes and one-liners that somehow make you forget about all the aforementioned.
"Django Unchained" is no different.
Unlike the against-all-odds love stories we've seen and read a thousand times before, "Django Unchained" is an exploration of pre-Civil War slavery bound in a bizarre blend of both the Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western film genres. It is campy and it is captivating.
The first we see of Django (the D is silent) -- a recently sold slave played by Jamie Foxx -- is his badly beaten back, feet chained to his fellowmen, shuffling through a Texas desert, following his horse-riding masters. The men are interrupted in the middle of the night by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz of exceptional "Inglourious Basterds" villain fame) who, in search of three murderous Klan member brothers, needs to recruit Django for help in finding them (as Dr. King—ha!—doesn't know what they look like). In exchange for his assistance, he will grant Django his freedom.
And so the men set out on their hunt, developing an unconventional but endearing friendship, all the while on a mission, too, of rescuing Django's wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington, who only appears in flashbacks for the first half of the film), from an infamously cruel plantation owner, a spoiled snake of a man, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
Though Django is indeed the title character, like any real cowboy, he is a man of few words, but many brooding glances. And so, on dialogue alone, screen time is often stolen by his castmates, but it doesn't make you root for the man with the huge heart any less. After all, Django is on a journey of self-discovery too, regaining strengths—both physical and mental—that have long been suppressed.
But the only way he can succeed in his sneaky plan is to play a conniving character that goes against all he believes, no matter how humiliating. He's conflicted and Foxx convinces you of that strenuous internal struggle with heartbreaking, steely-eyed looks alone.
It's Schultz you first take a liking to, though, as the verbose savior with the hilariously dry, deadpan delivery who (yay!) "despises slavery" -- not that his forward thinking influences anyone else's use of the word "n****r": It is reportedly said 114 times in the film. (Sometimes it's admittedly funny, like when Samuel L. Jackson, playing Candie's self-described "Uncle Tom"-like privileged house slave-turned-snitch, says it in a way that only Jackson can. And sometimes it's not, like when Candie himself, in the moments when he's not referring to blacks as "Mandingos," lets it roll off his tongue with ease and evil pleasure.)
But for every violent whipping scene and "n****r" namecall that makes you flinch, there is some nick-of-time comic relief—Jonah Hill playing a painfully dumb Klansman; a few gratuitously gory shoot-outs that blow people away as if pulled by a cartoon bungee cord—and, of course, some good old-fashioned redemption for the underdog, too.
Granted, for "Django Unchained" to truly be touted as a love story—as Foxx and Washington so claimed—we should've been crippled by their on-screen chemistry. We should have felt, much like Django did, that living without his wife wasn't an option, that crossing state lines and risking his life to find her was worth it, but Washington's limited lines didn't allow for that -- though that's not to say her performance, especially during moments of torture, wasn't moving; it was. But we spend more than two hours hoping the two will be reunited without knowing a thing about their relationship.
Alas, that's one of the few flaws with the film, as it also undoubtedly employs some outlandishly cheesy camera tricks and mimics, even if done ironically (see: exaggerated stand-off stances for the men and "my hero!"-like hand-clasping for the women).
Still, despite "Django" being a platform for Tarantino's standard fare of sacrifice, survival and revenge, you can't say the movie is like anything you've ever seen before. Beating the odds at a time he's needed most, Django is, indeed, a Black superhero.
"Django Unchained" will hit theaters Christmas Day.