Wild Wild Western
By Carl Kozlowski
In the 20 years since his stunning debut as the writer/director of the crime film Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino has brought a wildly inventive spin to numerous film genres, having more fun with crime in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, kung fu flicks with the two Kill Bill movies and World War II epics with Inglorious Basterds.
With his new epic, Django Unchained, he tackles Westerns in a way no one ever has before.
The movie follows the journey of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) as he seeks to find and free the wife (Kerry Washington) he was forcibly separated from, while teaming with a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to kill as many criminals and slave owners as possible. Schultz has paid for Django’s freedom because he alone can lead him to a trio of criminal brothers who have long eluded him.
When Django comes across the three brothers they’re seeking, he winds up shooting one and whipping the other with brutal panache. Finding that he enjoys killing the kind of white people who used to brutalize him and continue to torture the remaining slaves, Django takes to his new mission with relish, leading to an extended showdown of wits and violence between himself and Schultz on the side of good and his wife’s owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other.
Django Unchained is a movie that will make viewers watch with slack-jawed awe, not only for its stunning action and plot twists, but also for the shocking yet often funny dialogue delivered with deliciously evil flair throughout. It continues the Tarantino tradition of lengthy verbal showdowns between colorful characters who astonish with their eloquence and their evil intents, and a protracted suspense sequence at Candie’s plantation features DiCaprio in the most laid-back and funny performance of his career.
But the hate boiling beneath Candie’s cool-cat surface ultimately emerges to explosive effect and is matched fearsomely by Samuel L. Jackson as a “house slave” who has ruthlessly exploited ass-kissing his entire life to climb out of the fields into a life with a modicum of privilege. It is in the scenes with these two top-notch actors in particular that Django Unchained also attains its most discomfiting moments.
For it is in those moments that Tarantino pushes his most frequent and vivid uses of the “N-word” in the entire film. While racist characters earlier in the film also use it, it is in the plantation showdowns that the decidedly Caucasian filmmaker unleashes that ugly epithet with an almost poetic sense of grandeur, half the time leaving the audience laughing at the audacious turns of phrase surrounding the term and half the time angering them for its use in the first place.
The debate over whether Tarantino has the right to use the word at all has been raging since at least 1997, when his Jackie Brown script featured it 37 times, causing African-American director Spike Lee to accuse Tarantino of racism. Jackson, who had a starring role in that film and uttered most of those 37 words, defended Tarantino’s creative freedom in the process. Ultimately, audience members will have to decide for themselves whether at least 100 uses of the N-word in Django are justified creatively and historically or not—but be forewarned, it is in the movie, plenty of times.
To reveal much more than those basic plot strands would take away from the singular magic Tarantino achieves in his best films, including this one. The central friendship between Schultz and Django is refreshingly positive and one of the most original pairings in screen history.
Tarantino’s stunning cinematography highlights the beauty of the West’s great outdoors, and his stylish direction of both a stellar cast and crackling good action add up to a richly entertaining first two hours. But the climactic battle—morally justifiable as Django shoots dozens of slave owners and their henchmen in self-defense—goes so far over the top with bloodiness that it almost derails enjoyment of the movie and detracts from the intelligence it displayed earlier throughout.
Overall, Django Unchained is a movie for daring audiences to experience, as the sum is far greater than any of its offensive parts. It may not be the most obvious choice for viewing on Christmas, its release day, but you won’t be disappointed closing out the year or starting the new one with a viewing.