Movie Review

Enjoyably cockeyed 'Django Unchained' revives an old Western recipe

2012-12-28T08:15:00Z 2012-12-28T23:18:47Z Enjoyably cockeyed 'Django Unchained' revives an old Western recipeCody Clark — Daily Herald Daily Herald
December 28, 2012 8:15 am  • 

Vivid, lurid, florid, fervid and probably just about every other kind of id you can imagine — torrid, sordid — Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is like eight seconds on the jumpiest, meanest bull any cowboy ever climbed aboard. It's a heck of a jolt, a singular thrill, and almost certain to throw you spurs over Stetson. The first ride won't be nearly enough for some viewers, while others are likely to find themselves lying in the mud, muck and manure and wondering what the heck just happened.

Tarantino's enjoyably cockeyed homage to the surly cinematic gunslinger first played by Italian matinee idol Franco Nero might be the Spaghetti-est Western ever made, with four or five performances that rest, like so many succulent, steaming juicy meatballs, on a story that complements them like a bed of perfectly cooked pasta.

There's also plenty of bright red sauce to go with everything else: There's so much blood spilled that an entire army of vampires — the one from "Breaking Dawn," perhaps — probably couldn't finish it all. Some of the violence is as brutal as a hammer blow — literally so, in at least one instance — and some of it borders on being cartoonish. Even the more stylized bloodletting, however, is not for the faint of heart.

(In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Tarantino has already publicly rebutted charges that his new film contributes to a long-established culture in movies and television of glamorizing gun violence and desensitizing viewers to its effects. We probably shouldn't shoot the messenger, so to speak, but it would be delusional to deny that the message is there.)

Where Steven Spielberg's dignified (and excellent) "Lincoln" discusses the slave trade and slave labor almost in abstract, with nary an actual slave to be seen, "Django Unchained" tackles the question of slavery in America like a linebacker. The first thing shown in the film is a long coffle of shirtless black men being led through the badlands of Texas, circa 1858, by mounted slavers.

There are many frank and unsparing images to follow of detestable cruelty, both casual and calculated, to black men, women and children. As a filmmaker, Tarantino frequently pursues visual motifs to excess, but there's no denying the jarring viscerality of "Django Unchained" purely as a reminder of human beings' capacity to both ill treat and self-justifyingly belittle our fellow man.

The story kicks in when the slavers, late one night, are hailed by an excessively polite, loquacious traveler who identifies himself as Dr. King Schultz. A former dentist, the enterprising Schultz now goes from place to place shooting malefactors and collecting various rewards and bounties. He needs one of the slaves, Django by name, to help him identify a trio of fugitive brothers from one of his many warrants.

Schultz's German accent and seemingly prissy demeanor rankle the slavers, who refuse his offer to purchase Django. Words are exchanged, weapons drawn, shots fired and the surprisingly capable Schultz eventually gets what he came for, leaving the slavers dead and the slaves to their own devices — all except for Django, enlisted by Schultz to join his pay-per-slay endeavor as a junior partner.

The partnership proves fruitful and the two men enlarge and extend their bargain before ultimately hatching a scheme to rescue Django's long-lost wife, Broomhilda, from a notorious plantation in Louisiana.

Christoph Waltz collected a 2009 supporting actor Oscar for his work in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," and may soon have cause to thank the Academy once more. He's a droll and charming hoot as the eccentric Schultz, a character so distinctive and colorful that he largely overshadows his more stoic protege for much of the movie.

Jamie Foxx, as Django, holds his ground mostly by projecting a sense of controlled menace. Django is a volcano, poised to erupt in vengeful wrath, but capable of biding his time.

Like an expert chef, Tarantino blends a lot of different flavors. There's abundant comedy in "Django Unchained," ranging from broad-as-a-barn gags like the unforeseen problems encountered by an amusingly anachronistic band of Ku Klux Klansmen, to more daffy, understated bits like the cordial behavior of Schultz's well-trained horse. Yet when the film takes itself more seriously, in a handful of quieter, generally well-chosen spots, the shift is never grating.

The proceedings are also spiked with borderline comical ballads of the sort that fell out of Westerns decades ago, something that feels like both a breezy homage and a crazy new sensation. Whether you love or hate Tarantino's films, his consistent willingness to experiment is some kind of wonderful.

After parading a host of lesser lights in well-crafted minor parts past his camera, Tarantino eventually pits Schultz and Django against a pair of antagonists whose monstrous villainy is equal to their resourcefulness. Leonardo DiCaprio brilliantly turns his leading man image on its head as hissably vile plantation owner Calvin Candie, while Samuel L. Jackson adds a disquieting and indelible wrinkle to the film's portrayal of slavery as Candie's power-drunk, unfailingly loyal house slave, Stephen.

Here again, the brilliance of his co-stars' performances threatens to edge Foxx out of the picture. Django is the kind of character Clint Eastwood might have played, however, and like Eastwood — who made his share of spaghetti Westerns — Foxx is capable of doing much with little.

At one key moment, Django turns the tables on one of Candie's henchmen, who angrily blurts out, "Duh-jango, you black (son of a gun)!" Django calmly replies, "The D is silent, hillbilly." It's not exactly "Go ahead, make my day," but Foxx invests it with the same flair.

With its more than occasional run-on conversations, frequent referencing of other films, distasteful gore-mongering and unapologetic use of racial slurs, "Django Unchained" checks a lot of the usual Tarantino boxes, and not everyone is going to roll with that. If you've got the stomach for it, however, the ride is certainly memorable.

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