For my money, the Western is one of those genres that will never truly die. We’ve been spoiled by a series of terrific entries in recent years, as it usually has to be a fantastic script to find financing for a Cowboys and Indians flick in an age of superheroes. With someone like Quentin Tarantino at the helm, no genre is safe, and as he goes to put his stamp on the scenic vistas of the Wild West, should we join him on the ride?
Welcome back Mr. Tarantino, welcome back. It’s been 3 years since Inglourious Basterds put a new spin on the WWII movie (if killing Hitler is what you consider a “spin”) and he’s returned with his take on another genre, the western. Make no mistake, this isn’t like any western you’ve ever seen. That being said, this is a Tarantino movie, so prepare yourself for a barrage of winks, nudges, and homages that will delight the discerning few and simply entertain the rest. Django Unchained is the kind of big screen experience that really works with an audience, delivering on its premise in every way you’d expect, and several which you wouldn’t. The only question remains, is this a movie you’d enjoy? I’ll try to answer that below.
In a great marketing move, most of what we’ve seen from Django thus far occurs in the first hour of the movie. The viewer won’t be privy too significant chunk of this hero’s journey until the film is running on all cylinders, keeping the whole experience fresh and lively. With rarely a slow moment, there’s a sense of play and energy here that is sorely lacking in much of the recent studio fare. Christoph Waltz alone could carry the movie, as his German dentist/bounty hunter is instantly iconic and endlessly hilarious. Everything from his grey suit to the giant tooth that wiggles on a spring atop his wagon serve to paint the picture of this odd little man, a man who would free a slave and make him his partner at a time when seeing a black man riding a horse is enough to stop townsfolk dead in their tracks. The film uses racism as a way of exposing the stupidity of racial prejudice, and though the language is often harsh, it fits the time period and reminds us how far we’ve come. Tarantino gets away with the slurs because of the grounded setting and the art direction’s painstaking attention to detail. We don’t question what the characters say because everything feels so genuine, and I think Sergio Lione would be proud of the way in which his blueprint has been interpreted for a modern audience.
Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, is a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know if Will Smith, long rumored to play the part of Django, would have been able to get to the gritty, dirty level that Foxx does here. There’s a weariness and a strength in his performance that implies the years of hardship, while giving his character a chance to grow and stretch the way any great performer relishes. The evolution of Django is an impressive marriage of direction and acting, bringing him from a shell of a man to a powerhouse hammer of vengeance over the course of a single film. The other highlights are the antagonists, a two-headed serpent in the form of a devious and dangerous Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, and the head of his house staff, a surprisingly nuanced Samuel L. Jackson. Both look to be having the time of their lives here, and DiCaprio feels particularly joyous, not having to carry the burden of the leading role and allowed to tap into a much darker streak. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more villainous turns from him in the not too distant future. Sam Jackson’s Steven allows for a much deeper part than he’s had a chance to play in the past, and without giving anything away, you’ll be surprised at the levels at work under the surface and how smoothly and swiftly he transitions between them.
This film is a hard R, just the way you’d expect from this director. Geysers of blood greet every brutal gunshot, and the red stuff coats the walls and ceilings in his hyper-stylized fashion. It’s a western by way of Tarantino after all, and there are very few things left to the imagination. Do not bring your children to see this movie… unless you’re interested in scarring them for life. The over-the-top violence makes the action feel more like a theater piece than grim reality, and you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at many of the more impactful kills, sometimes in spite of personal reservations to the contrary. It’s a spectator sport, and much like The Avengers this summer, this is a crowd-pleasing theater going experience in the truest sense. I’m sure you’ll get enjoyment out of checking this one out at home, but there’s something about the energy of the room, particularly with people who are seeing the film for the first time, that’s hard to replicate. Unlike some of his recent movies, I have a feeling this one will hold up under multiple viewings as it doesn’t place all the tension in the unknown that’s about to occur, so where the wind goes out of Inglourious Basterds’s sails in the basement sequence, Django Unchained will likely continue to soar. Easily holding a spot in my Top 10 of the year, you’d be crazy not to check this one out.
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