“The badder they are, the bigger the reward”
The trailer for the revenge western Django Unchained views as another Quentin Tarantino classic, with all the cinematic trademarks that have become synonymous with the writer/director. Tarantino’s bloody camera lens brought us classics like Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, and raised the bar of discomfort in Inglorious Basterds by creating a brutal revenge fantasy in Nazi-occupied France. But this tale of vengeance in the pre-Civil War South surpasses any level of shock one would expect to see.
Django Unchained will raise many eyebrows, opening Christmas Day as one of the most anti-holiday movies in recent memory. Copious amounts of blood and over-dramatized, graphic violence are expected when it comes to Tarantino, but I still found myself covering my eyes for more than I was prepared for: whippings, beatings, branding, gladiator-style fighting to the death among slaves, vicious dog attacks and – one of the most uncomfortable – a scene involving castration. This is by no means a Kill Bill revenge tale with slaves. Django doesn’t just use slavery as a hollow setpiece for gunslingers and outlaws; this film goes in-depth to expose the inhumane treatment of slaves in an in-your-face fashion.
“We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but after you do the research, it’s no longer intellectual anymore, no longer just historical record–you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something…I’m here to tell you that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit happened. When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them.. I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.” Quentin Tarantino via The Guardian UK
Set in the deep South two years prior to the Civil War, the film follows Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave who makes an agreement with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an undercover German bounty hunter disguised as a traveling dentist, to assist Schultz in return for his freedom. Schultz additionally agrees to help Django find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) if Django helps him find and kill the Brittle Brothers (and various other killers) who have warrants out for their arrest, dead or alive.
As in most Tarantino films, the ensemble cast performs with grade-A acting skills. The humor in the sharply penned dialogue went over well while wrapped around scenes boiling over with tension and suspense. Strong performances were given by Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson and Walton Goggins. But the true scene-stealers were the hero and the villain of Django–Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio.
As the Jew hunter in Inglorious Basterds – the role that won him his first Academy Award – Waltz proved to Hollywood that he had the ability to steal the spotlight from some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Django is no exception. His wit, persuasive nature and appropriate silliness provide some of the best scenes in the film. Not to mention his quick draw skills as a bad-ass bounty hunter are more impressive than anticipated. Christoph Waltz proves to be the ultimate killer, but all in the name of the law.
Django and Dr. Schultz embark on the daunting journey of finding Django’s wife, going from plantation to plantation until they can find Broomhilda. After digging through public records, they uncover her location–Candyland, one of the most well-known, ritziest plantations in the heart of brutality–MISSISSIPPI. Candyland is owned by one of the most notoriously despicable monsters of the South, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who forces female slaves into prostitution and male slaves to fight to the death for sport.
This could easily be Dicaprio’s greatest performance to date, and in two positions he seldom finds himself–a supporting actor and a villain. The character of Calvin Candie is unparalleled by any role DiCaprio has undertaken. Candie is a twisted freak, a man with no shred of decency or respect for human life. To fully engage into such a repellant character, DiCaprio questioned the morality of the script.
“For me, the initial thing obviously was playing someone so disreputable and horrible whose ideas I obviously couldn’t connect with on any level. I remember our first read through, and some of my questions were about the amount of violence, the amount of racism, the explicit use of certain language…my initial response was ‘Do we need to go this far?'” Leonardo DiCaprio via Movietalk
But DiCaprio understood that in order to retell history in Django, there could be no sugarcoating of his character. The brutality of the villains in Django, the excess of racial slurs and the obscene, gruesome violence were used for a specific purpose: to portray the abject horror of this period in history. Django not only serves as a story of love and unlikely friendship, but also as a visual account of a part of history no one wants to think about.
Despite the grisly backdrop and gratuitous violence, Tarantino did in fact edit some of the most violent scenes because the footage was too realistic, trimming it down to avoid further traumatizing viewers. In the production process, Tarantino admit that filming a scene where a female slave is beaten by her master brought him and the cast to tears.
“It was early on in the production and it was the first time we started officially dealing with that kind of ugliness. It was traumatizing to everybody, none less cause of the fact that we were doing it in the real slave area of a real plantation where slaves lived. There was blood in that ground. Those trees had memories of everything that happened there.” Quentin Tarantino via Examiner
Is the violence too much? Negative. Though Tarantino’s predilection for violence is well-established, it’s extremely gutsy for any writer/director to tackle such a dark part of America’s bloody history and to do it unapologetically. While it may dip into territory too grim or farther than necessary, it showcases the reality of that time period without tip-toeing around our emotions.
While the 2:45 running time seems longer than necessary (let’s save some of that for the DVD special features or directors cut), and the musical score lacks the impact of David Bowie’s “Cat People” montage from Inglorious Basterds, the pros of Django Unchained certainly outweigh the cons. The outstanding ensemble cast coupled with scenes that will haunt you with the highest level of discomfort prove that Tarantino hasn’t lost his touch. But as gritty as Django is (moreso than any other Tarantino flick), the violence and terror proved a historical point necessary for telling this story. This visionary and brutally terrifying depiction of the old South may be one of the most controversial films of the year.