Rated R for graphic violence, some nudity, profanity and strong language.
Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django is a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with ...
Rating: R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Length: 165 minutes
Released: December 25, 2012 Nationwide
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Part bloody buddy picture, part revenge thriller, part action-comedy and entirely racial provocation, "Django Unchained," which opens Christmas Day, reaches beyond Quentin Tarantino's beloved Spaghetti Westerns and "blaxploitation" movies all the way back to D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) for inspiration.
Griffith's film, which celebrated the "heroism" of the Ku Klux Klan even as it helped give birth to the modern motion picture, was "like history writ with lightning," in a remark widely attributed to President Woodrow Wilson. "Django Unchained" is history — film and otherwise — writ with bursting squibs of blood and the calligraphy of makeup-effects scars on whipped slaves' backs and a compulsive use of the N-word that detractors may liken to Tourette's syndrome.
The director signs his work with the exclamation point of his own explosive on-screen demise, appropriately due to what Tarantino idol Sergio Leone might describe as a fistful of dynamite. Here comes the boom, indeed.
Like Tarantino's previous movie, "Inglourious Basterds" (2009), the almost three-hour "Django Unchained" is a retroactive wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy on the grandest of scales. Most revenge films ("Death Wish," for example) find a wronged protagonist stalking those who killed his wife or family, but in "Basterds" and now "Django," Tarantino becomes the time-traveling avenger of an entire race or culture: In the earlier film, Jewish-American soldiers kill Hitler, while the new movie imagines the righteous pre-Civil War massacre of a plantation of slave owners and their sympathizers.
At the same time, "Django" becomes an offering of retribution — a cinematic reparation, if you will — to atone for the infamy of Griffith's (yes) masterpiece and the many subsequent screen celebrations of what the preamble to "Gone with the Wind" (1939) described as a "civilization" where "Gallantry took its last bow."
Is it wrong to detect at least the whiff of unconscious patronization in Tarantino's project? "I feel ... responsible for you," a white German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), tells the rescued slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who becomes his employee and partner.
Django is described as "one in 10,000." Might the message not be more potent if he were presented as an Everyman driven to the extreme of his potential rather than as an exceptional Superman?
"Django Unchained" is the first Tarantino film I've seen that I left with mixed emotions. I admired it and was never less than entertained and amused, but I wasn't enthralled, nor often surprised. This is the first feature Tarantino has completed since the death of his longtime collaborator, editor Sally Menke, and perhaps this explains why most scenes in "Django Unchained" lacks the characteristic Tarantino pop. (The editor is Fred Raskin, Menke's assistant on Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films.)
Other bits are inferior revisions of previous Tarantino sequences. When the courtly but feared Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), master of a Mississippi plantation named "Candyland," delivers a disquisition on the phrenological proof of the inferiority of Negros, we remember the far more suspenseful and scary Nazi lecture comparing Jews to rats in "Basterds." When the climactic bloodbath occurs, we are disappointed that it is not as inventively or coherently staged as similar rampages and purges in "Basterds" and "Kill Bill — Vol. 1."
With a title that nods to the 1959 Italian sword-and-sandal epic "Hercules Unchained," "Django Unchained" borrows the name of its lead character from a later internationally successful Italian genre film, "Django" (1966), directed by Spaghetti Western master Sergio Corbucci. (That movie's star, Franco Nero, appears in one of the most amusing and purposeful of the many cameos in "Django Unchained.")
Opening with the original theme song from the 1966 "Django" (as always, Tarantino salutes his influences), the episodic "Django Unchained" is most successful in depicting the growing friendship and working relationship between the verbose, articulate "fancy pants" bounty hunter, Schultz, and the uneducated but brave Django. "I kill people and sell their corpses for cash," Schultz explains. "Kill white folks and they pay you for it?" Django asks. "What's not to like?"
Django is motivated by a desire to rescue his slave wife (Kerry Washington), named Brunhilde, as in the Norse myth. (The name is corrupted by her subsequent owners to "Broomhilda," as in the comic strip.) Unlike her namesake, however, this Brunhilde doesn't have much to do, making "Django Unchained" the first Tarantino film since "Reservoir Dogs" without a strong leading female character.
In Chattanooga, Schultz lets Django pick out a wardrobe because at Candyland, "You'll be playing a character," he tells him. "During the act, you can never break character."
"Playing a character," of course, long has been a requirement for black people, in particular, in America, as when savvy performers such as Stepin Fetchit portrayed lazy ignoramuses on-screen. This tradition is alluded to when Tarantino introduces Samuel L. Jackson in old-age Uncle Ben makeup as the seemingly daffy but in fact conniving "old decrepit bastard" of a slave who is the "house" Negro-in-charge at Candyland, where the desert of choice is — what else? — white cake.
If the shootouts disappoint, the comedy doesn't. A highlight of "Django Unchained" — and the film's most direct reference to Griffith — is a Mel Brooks-esque episode in which a Klan raid is delayed by the participants' dissatisfaction with their poorly designed hoods. Other amusing bits last mere seconds, as when Brunhilde puts her fingers in her ears before an explosion, as if she were a cartoon character. When Django makes his horse do a trick, connecting the cowboy dots between the innocence of Roy Rogers and Trigger and the catharsis of Sergio Corbucci's radicals, the moment is sublime.