Absolutely. I was floored by 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” – not by the violence or the outrageousness of some of the action, but by Tarantino’s command of suspense, his ability to crank the tension to the breaking point in any given scene – and then to crank it even further. It gave you that slightly breathless feeling you get when you’re blowing up a balloon to see if you can make it pop from too much air – and each puff feels like it should be the last.
And I was equally dazzled by his newest, “Django Unchained,” a film that manages to pay homage to films of the past even as it sends them up and then pushes past them into a territory all its own. You’ve never seen a western like “Django Unchained” because, well, no one has ever made one before. And though there are likely to be imitators, there will never be another one.
Tarantino mostly uses both the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the revisionist westerns of the 1970s as his inspiration, with a dollop of blaxploitation and even a sprinkling of “Blazing Saddles,” just for a dose of absurdity. He invests each scene with a fizzing, whizzing energy, laying out a story of cruelty and revenge.
His central character is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 who is freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz, who claims he was a dentist before he took up the gun, takes Django under his wing and trains him in the ways of the Old West. And then they head for the Deep South.
Why? Well, Django’s wife is still a slave. Her name is Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), just one of Tarantino’s deliciously odd little jokes, and Django wants her back. So he and Schultz start picking off bounty targets to build their cash reserve, even as they do a little sleuthing to figure out where Broomhilda is now owned.
That turns out to be Candieland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose specialty is training male slaves for “mandingo” fights, bare-knuckle brawls to the death. To get there, however, Django and Schultz must track her through a plantation of female sex slaves owned by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and beyond.
Candieland is like the ultimate kingdom of evil, one in which the smooth-talking Candie is served by an even more vicious slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the power behind the throne, as it were. Can Django and Schultz outwit both Candie and Stephen and rescue Broomhilda?
The story is both slight and inexorable, because westerns almost always lead to showdowns. The finale shoot-out in “Django Unchained” is wild and bloody – but then so is the rest of the action in this brutal, funny and outlandishly entertaining film.
Tarantino obviously relishes every scene, every second of this film, investing it with the same kind of energy and passion that you see in the films of Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg.
His take on slavery is at once disturbingly graphic and, no doubt, less harrowing than the reality was. It’s a bold choice, one that few filmmakers have attempted before him. This dark chapter of the American story reverberates to this day, though we try to sweep it into a tidy little corner called “history,” as though it were a brief aberration, instead of a defining issue of the country’s first 200 years (and ever since, for that matter).
Its aftereffects – this country’s schizoid, skittish approach to race relations – are still being felt. Race remains the most uncomfortable of topics for public discussion, because that particular aspect – the willingness of one race to subjugate another one – is still a painful, if increasingly distant, memory.
But Tarantino isn’t interested in simply revisiting the past: He wants to reinvent it. And he wants to grab the viewer and take him for a wild ride in the process.
So his approach to violence is not just graphic, with spurting explosions of blood every time someone gets shot. It’s also alternately gruesome and comic: When bad-ass villains get shot (but not killed), they don’t just drop in a burst of gore – they also scream in pain. But Tarantino’s twisted humor finds the laugh in a bad guy, so full of bravado when he’s got the upper hand, squealing like a stuck pig when he’s on the receiving end.
It’s the essence of revenge drama: just desserts. It’s not enough that the hero wins – the villain has to suffer some (if not all) of the same depredations that he has dished out.
Everyone in this cast brings something unexpected to the party. Foxx’s grittily laconic Django is the perfect Western protagonist, a man on a mission who doesn’t need to say much but always has the perfect topper when it’s needed. He’s complemented by Waltz as the courtly, fast-talking Schultz, whose even-tempered “just business” approach contrasts with the “this is personal” vibe coming from Django.
DiCaprio finds the logic in the despicable Candie, a man who has had his world given to him and assumes it will always be thus. He reveals the cowardice behind the bravura of a man who loves all things French – but doesn’t speak French himself. Jackson, meanwhile, gets to play to his sweet spot as a vicious slave who looks like Uncle Ben and acts like Simon Legree.
Funny, shocking and never less than enthralling, “Django Unchained” is, as they say, off the chain. As much as it borrows and repurposes from other films, it’s sui generis, an original film that will ignite dialogues – and arguments – for years to come.Print This Post