Quentin Tarantino’s western isn’t quite the masterpiece as Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction, but it’s still a resounding piece of great cinema. Tarantino’s statement of the horrors of slavery and the effect it has on the human psyche represents one of his most thoughtful motion pictures. Having seen it during its theatrical release, I gladly accepted the assignment of taking another look at Django Unchained.
Upon second viewing, I was once again blown away by the filmmaking; Tarantino remains at the top of his game and one of the most inventive directors working today. There is plenty of humor, violence and snappy dialogue. The cinematography is top notch, and the eclectic selection of music is inspired and at times ironic. To me, what I found especially enlightening about Django Unchained was depth of character and the relationship Tarantino built between his two leads, Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz).
Indeed, I didn’t expect this epic to have a bigger emotional impact the second time around. The first time through Django Unchained is such a visceral experience. There is a joy in Tarantino’s filmmaking that is contagious. You can see how much he loves movies of all genres- critically acclaimed or otherwise- and this love comes through on screen and through the performances. When projected of a huge movie screen, it’s easy to lose sight of the director’s message and get caught up in the excitement of another Tarantino extravaganza. Sitting in the comfort of my home, where the film watching was more personal, this tale of slavery and revenge felt rawer, and the fate of the characters struck closer to my heart.
Set in pre-Civil War America, Django (the “D” is silent), a slave rescued from a chain gang by Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django’s help finding three criminal brothers. Once the task is complete, Django will become a free man. As they begin their trek to hunt the wanted men, Schultz comes to care for Django and the life that was stolen from him.
Django has a wife named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Together they ran away from a plantation, only to get caught and sold to separate owners as punishment. Realizing that Django is going to pursue Broomhilda, Schultz can’t in good mind let his new friend go it alone for fear he’ll never survive. The doctor asks his new companion to become his partner in the bounty hunting business for the long winter. Once the snow thaws, Schultz promises to help Django save his beloved Broomhilda from the notorious Candyland, a plantation owned by the ruthless, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The cast is rounded out by Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s house slave, Stephen, one of the most despicable and duplicitous characters in modern film.
All of Tarantino’s films contain superb acting, which isn’t difficult for an actor when you’re given such great material to work with. Each cast member, from the leads to the actors with the slimmest of roles (except perhaps the director trying on an Australian accent) excels. But the film belongs to Waltz. Don’t get me wrong, Foxx is outstanding, but Waltz has a way with words and expression that are so inviting, I can see why Tarantino wanted to work with him again after Inglorious Basterds (and wrote this role specifically for him). I can also understand why Will Smith turned down the part of Django. If you knew you had to act opposite Waltz, would you be up to the challenge? Foxx is definitely up to the challenge and together, the two men create one of the great on screen bromances, right up there with Butch & Sundance and Riggs & Murtaugh.
When Django bids auf wiedersehen to Schultz for the last time, it’s one of the most touching moments in the film, if not Tarantino’s entire canon of films.
Tarantino has hinted that he doesn’t have many films left in him, which would be a blow to cinema. Having tackled gangsters, samurais and kung fu, World War II and now a western, the great director has explored most of the American genres of films. Would he ever do a romantic comedy or a musical? It sure would be interesting. Whatever he decides, I’ll be waiting, as I’m sure his legion of fans will be, as well.