Friday, April 26, 2013

Six Shots; Two Guns

By now, you should have seen Django Unchained. It came out 5 months ago so, if you haven't, stop reading this and go watch it now! This post assumes that anyone reading it has seen Tarantino's new revisionist Western and will be packed with spoilers and plot details that everyone deserves to be genuinely surprised by.

Django Unchained proves again why Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate cult director whose films are both grotesquely offensive and immensely popular. Very few directors can claim that every new film they release will be a massive pop culture event that goes on to be the highlight of all movie discussion for weeks. In fact, it's difficult to think of any directors this phenomenon effect applies to besides Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Not only is Django Unchained thoroughly a Tarantino film, it is the most-Tarantino film he has ever made: his goofiest, bloodiest, funniest and overall most ridiculous film to date. By infusing his quintessential (or rather Quentin-essential) style into a rich and complex narrative that confronts the historical travesty of slavery head-on, Tarantino has delivered a truly original and fully realized re-imagining of the classic Western vengeance film.

The film begins with a line of slaves chained together being led through the valleys and mountains that define the Western setting. Out of the darkness emerges Dr. King Schulz. After a rather quick, funny and gruesome exchange, the slaves' captors are wasted and the doctor is free is to obtain the help of the slave he needs. And thus, within 5 minutes of this nearly 3 hour epic, Django is unchained and the audience (that's you and me) is totally captivated. It is clear from this scene alone that 1) We're in for a wild ride and 2) Christoph Waltz's Dr. Schulz is going to be one of the most entertaining performances of recent history.

After Schulz explains to Django his true business as a bounty hunter rather than a slaver (and cleverly pointing out the similarities between the two professions), the two unlikely comrades travel around a the beautiful snow-covered Western landscape knocking off bad guys while Django trains to become "the fastest gun in the west," a skill he'll put to good use in the second half of the film. Each and every scene is quick-witted, humorous and thoroughly entertaining. One of the scenes in this part of the film depicts a hilarious exchange among a group of KKK members outraged by Schulz's decent treatment of Django. Instead of making this another violent showdown, Tarantino gives us a positively inspired conversation about misshapen hoods. This is a bold scene primarily because it depicts the Klan members not as monsters but as normal people threatened by something different. Not that it romanticizes the KKK either; this is not Birth of a Nation. Although they aren't the gun-toting demons most of us have come to deem the Klan as, they are by no means heroes. Rather, Tarantino depicts them as whiny incompetent pansies. By focusing on this seemingly inconsequential aspect, we are treated to a realistic and entertaining town hall meeting of sorts that conveys more about the the group's real thoughts than a more straight-forward scene could have. Tarantino has a knack for doing this and pulling it off wonderfully. This scene is the "Royale with Cheese" of Django Unchained.

After the montage of great scenes that constitutes the first half, the movie settles into the meat of the narrative when Django and Schulz concoct a plan to reunite Django with his beloved wife Broomhilda by freeing her from the possession of the despicable Calvin Candie. This is the first (and only) time the pacing of the film slows down and it's to bring across how devilishly foul Calvin Candie really is. In the second great performance of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio proves that he can play the villain just as well as he can the hero we've all come to know him as. Unlike the KKK members earlier, Candie is not an easily-outwitted fool who advocates slavery simply because it's the life he knows. You can sense the intelligence in DiCaprio's performance. Candie is a man who understands just how wrong slavery is and is willing to use it to his advantage. He knows that, as a rich white man in nineteenth century America, he can get away with doing just about whatever he wants to whomever he wants... and he does. Now here is a great villain.

And then there's the third great performance of the film. Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen, Calvin Candie's head house slave. Stephen is a man who, long ago, realized that his best path in life would come by gaining his master's favor and aiding in keeping the other slaves in line. He is worse than a slaver; a man who has turned his back on his own race with no other purpose than to live a more comfortable life. Stephen is the classic Uncle Tom character with a twist; and since it's Tarantino and Jackson, he is the funniest Uncle Tom I've ever witnessed. Stephen is smart and manipulative to a degree that even Candie does not realize. It is clear in the final scene when he kicks away his cane to reveal his ability to walk perfectly without a limp (well... not for long) that this man has been fooling everyone and must have taken advantage of a countless number of his black brethren to reach the position he has.

A lot is said about Tarantino's ultra-modern style and wit, but it's often taken for granted that his films are based on a solid foundation of excellent classical filmmaking. As Calvin Candie would say, "Making a great film should be your first, second, third, fourth, and fifth concern. After you have that, and you know you have that, then you can start to implement a grand design. In other words, first thing is first." Tarantino's character arcs are brilliant and fully realized. When the right actor is cast for a part in a Tarantino film, the result is truly something miraculous. Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson bring a lyricism to the dialogue that lifts it to the realm of modern poetry. There are two scenes in this film in which all three actors share screen time and they are some of the most inspired scenes I have ever seen.

The only repercussion of having such rich supporting characters is that there needs to be a solid, anchored central performance in the film for them to bounce off. This is something that is uniformly true about all of Tarantino's films (see Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds) and is no exception here. Jamie Foxx's Django is almost passive compared to the great performances of the film. Do not be misled, however. There is nothing wrong with his performance; actually, it's perfect in that it accomplishes exactly what it needs to in the film. Django represents the will and outlook of entire slave population in the mid-nineteen century. Striving for freedom but not quite knowing what it means, Django's journey through the film represents a coming-of-age for his people. As an audience, we witness his transformation from a passive slave who wants nothing but his own comfort to a gun-slinging freeman willing and equipped to fight for his freedom. As an allegory for the abolishment of slavery, Django Unchained is as powerful as (and far more entertaining than) Steven Spielberg's recent Lincoln.

Of course, there's a great soundtrack. Quentin Tarantino has a knack for putting together music from a wide range of sources and making it work for his film. Every single one of the 23 songs on the Django Unchained soundtrack perfectly evokes the emotion or message of the scene it corresponds to. So much so, in fact, that it doesn't seem right that only 4 of the songs were composed specifically for the film and the other 19 were taken from other works. It would be impossible for me to hear the title song and think of anything other than a group of slaves chained together walking through a desolate landscape. Just as it would be impossible for me to hear Misirlou or Jungle Boogie without immediately picturing John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in a car.

Django Unchained is such a powerful film, it refuses to be contained to any one description. It is simultaneously a brilliantly acted character study, a moving allegory about the coming-of-age of an entire race, an examination of the moral implications of slavery, a fairy tale about a man who does the impossible to reunite with his wife, a quick-witted and uproarious comedy, and a shoot-em-up bloody Western. None of those descriptions even touch on the film's grand visual style or perfect soundtrack. It is not difficult to see why Quentin Tarantino has earned the reputation he has. There has been some speculation as to Django Unchained being a thematic sequel to Inglourious Basterds and that a third film in the series is next up for Tarantino. If this is true, expect me to be first in line for that new film.

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