What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
I usually don’t do this, but I’m writing this review fresh out of the theater while the projector is still warm. Why don’t I normally do it? Because I feel like my gut reactions to movies are often over zealous. If I really dug it, I might be inclined to use words like “love” or “amazing”. Nothing settles my passions down like a little time and perspective.
But screw that.
Tonight, DJANGO UNCHAINED just made me laugh, cry, and pick my jaw up off the floor. I was shocked and awed. The movie is more entertaining that most films even dare to try to be. I love the movie and can’t possibly see another film dethroning it for me as my favorite of 2012.
And while I haven’t yet seen ZERO DARK THIRTY, I want to make the clear distinction here that I don’t mess around when it comes to “favorite” versus “best”. As a fan, I care much more about my favorites than I do about the “best”. And so I’m very confident in saying that no film this year has (or will) made me feel this giddy and left me with quite the sense of awe that DJANGO UNCHAINED just did. And on top of that, the quality, boldness, and singular vision of the film easily makes the case that this might just be the “best” film of 2012 as well.
You probably know what this thing is about. Hell, a bunch of you geeks have read the screenplay online already. I went in pretty much cold beyond a couple of trailers. I recommend you do the same and will only briefly describe the set up of the film in my non-spoiler review here. But if you HAVE read the screenplay, while you know what kinds of amazing events are going to occur, you can’t possibly imagine how visually wonderful those events are going to be, or how thoroughly perfect each cast member is.
What you’ve got, plot wise, is Christoph Waltz playing Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter in the pre-Civil War South. He buys a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to identify some bad men for him so he can kill them and collect the bounty. They make a good team and Schultz offers Django a partnership arrangement AND a promise to aide in the rescue of Django’s wife (Kerry Washington as the improbably named Broomhilda Von Shaft), who was separated from him and sold to an infamous plantation in Mississippi known as Candy Land.
As far as plotting goes, I’d recommend knowing very little else about this movie before you go in. You don’t really want to know where this journey is going to take you. You want to trust Tarantino to take you on a ride unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Because this film (while inspired by Sergio Corbucci and other directors’ spaghetti westerns, as well as other slave-sploitation films such as MANDINGO) is like none other.
Let’s spend some time just talking about the performances and the craft of DJANGO UNCHAINED, which should be lauded each in turn.
This is Jamie Foxx’s movie, yes. And it is. But Christoph Waltz’ character sets everything in motion and is simply a constant delight.
Schultz is good at killing people, for money, and is also good at doing it legally, complete with the paperwork to back it all up. He is so smart, charming, progressive, (and did I say charming?); that when he whips out a gun and shoots you dead, you still aren’t even sure this guy is for real. Waltz’ Dr. Schultz is an all time great Tarantino character and should easily net the actor another Academy Award nomination. Speaking of Awards, I wouldn’t be surprised if Leonardo Di Caprio gets a nod as Plantation owner Calvin Candie. And while Foxx may be a long shot, I’d suggest his performance here is more than a little bold.
Foxx is given the unenviable task of playing a slave. That alone is a bold challenge for any African American actor to take on. He is forced to endure a lot on screen at various points in the film, from torture and mutilation to being stripped naked and even having to impersonate a black slave trader (the lowest of the low). But the character finds strength in his ability to trust Dr. Schultz, and Django is able to grow, learn, gain confidence, and dish out some serious lessons to every single person he meets in this film. Django has moments of unbridled, glorious badassery that were probably a blast for Foxx to embody. I know they were a blast for me to watch!
As usual for QT, there are a ton of speaking roles in this film and everyone brings levels to their performances that are astounding. Kerry Washington as Broomhilda, the slave who speaks German, is a fairly new face to me and she just melted my heart on multiple occasions. Samuel L. Jackson is complex, hilarious, tough-as-nails, and may well be the most shocking and psychologically complicated character in the whole film. But again, I don’t want to spoil anything just yet. Just know that everyone, from side-villains to leads, bring something incredible to the tale and this ensemble cast just topped ARGO’s to be this year’s best.
I also just want to note, since I self identify as (and hope to live into the role of) the “action guy” around these parts, the action sequences in DJANGO UNCHAINED are the stuff of legend, and easily rival anything QT was able to pull off in KILL BILL. There is a gunfight where Django is heavily outnumbered and outgunned. I won’t say anything more, but that this is the most thrilling and visceral gun fight since THE RAID. And in any other year this scene, as well as a scene involving a large gang of white-hooded raiders, would have been the greatest action scenes of the year.
It is also my understanding (based solely off of internet chatter and no actual research) that QT eschewed the use of any CGI blood and went with all on-set blood squibs here. There must have been, um… a LOT of squibs. Blood flows and flesh is rent in this movie and the most hardened of souls will flinch. But it will evoke emotion in you at every turn. There isn’t really a wasted moment of violence in the entire screenplay.
The cinematography and action here is, appropriately, reminiscent of Sergio Leone. Violence comes in quick bursts and is shot for maximum drama. There are moments when nothing but a character’s eyes are filling the screen. There are also some very 1970s dramatic zooms, which are a QT guarantee by this point, right? Either way, there are layers upon layers of stylistic decisions happening here and the movie drips with that patented Tarantino swag. From camera movements to shot composition to thumping hip-hop tracks intermingling with the classic DJANGO theme from the original Italian film titled DJANGO, this movie feels ragingly Tarantino in the best ways possible.
And then there is the unbearable tension of it all. Remember how tense the opening sequence of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was? When Waltz’ Jew Hunter was interrogating the farmer, and all the while the audience knows that Jews hiding directly below them? Remember that masterpiece of a sequence? Yeah, the entire final act of DJANGO (which some will say is indulgent or even sloppy) felt like that to me. I don’t remember the last time I was so desperately desirous of a happy ending for our heroes, but so totally unsure which way the story was going to go. I’m not going to spoil the ending, don’t worry. But I will say that I was on the edge of my seat for about an HOUR straight in what is either the third or maybe fourth act of the film. And I loved every second of it, indulgences and all.
But now I must talk about our lovable mad genius Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed and birthed this unique cinematic child. No one else on earth could have made this movie. And that is a genuine testament to the man’s artistic vision. This is a complex and shockingly risky movie. I honestly think no other human could have made this film, regardless of race, but I guarantee that no other white man on earth could have created this. And I am curious to read about what African American’s will take away from this movie, whether as fans or as detractors. I have to say that my enjoyment of this film was unbridled, but that my middle class white entitlement probably hasn’t made me the best judge of all the complexity being dealt with here. That said, I’m fairly certain DJANGO UNCHAINED will turn out to be a highly divisive film. People of different races, socio-economic strata, or even Northern versus Southern people will all have very wildly different experiences with DJANGO UNCHAINED.
While I believe that the film is deeply rooted in a loathing of the practice of slavery, Tarantino still puts that unhealed wound right there on the table and then proceeds to actually poke and prod it and then even have fun with it, even while depicting the practice in a very graphic and negative light. I’d like to talk a little bit about this complexity because I want people to have something to chew on if they are reading this far anyway and plan to see the film.
My stances on racism certainly inform my reaction to DJANGO UNCHAINED. My staunch hatred of racism (coupled with my willingness to believe that I still have a long way to go before ridding myself of my own racism) lead me to think that DJANGO UNCHAINED is and will be a good piece of the puzzle in the ongoing fight to wipe out racism from our society. Why do I think that? Well, there are many folks out there who believe we live in a “post-racial” society. And I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that racism is alive, well, and more complex than ever in today’s rapidly shrinking world. Today’s racism is less obviously delineated by society and government, but more insidious and hidden internally. But even with that said, I’d still say there are some very overt and systemic racial problems being put forth every day in our economic systems and especially in our penal codes.
The overt slavery of DJANGO UNCHAINED is uncomfortable to us precisely because we refuse to remember how recent that blight really was a part of our mainstream American culture. So I guess what I’m saying is that, in my middle class whiteness, I’m sure I didn’t experience DJANGO the same way people who are different than me might experience it. But I do think whatever controversies are sparked from DJANGO UNCHAINED will be good for our national conversation. Because really, when Tarantino shoves slavery images such as branding, whips, chains, and frequent use of the “N” word in our faces, he is holding a mirror up to our society and forcing us to continue processing. I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is a savior, but I do think he hates racism and that underneath the massive entertainment value of his Southern Opus, there are important ideas to take outside the movie theater and into our cultural conversation.
Again, since I’m writing this fresh off my first viewing, I haven’t had the benefit of deep conversation or days worth of thought on this film. But all of that is certainly going to come. And I look forward to seeing DJANGO UNCHAINED some dozen more times over the next few years. I look forward to hearing what you all think of the film and hope to have some spirited and respectful conversation about the film in the talkbacks!
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis
*Photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company and Dimension Films.