Tarantino Adds Another Impressive Film to his List with Django Unchained

The Academy Awards nominations were announced Thursday morning, which I covered here. Django Unchained (which I saw Wednesday) had several nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing. Though I must say I’m kind of disappointed that it was overlooked for Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and, most of all, Best Director.

You see, I was really saddened about the Best Director snub because I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. He is, without a doubt, my favorite director. I know that might seem weird to some of you, as I’m a female and Tarantino has a more bloody, vulgar, masculine style of writing and filming. But seriously, he has such flair with all of his films—even the terrible Death Proof (part of the double-feature Grindhouse), which he even admits is his worst film.

Like Movie Boozer said, “Tarantino could easily be referred to as an auteur at this point.” This is the director who created cult classics Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs; my personal favorite, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2; and the WWII badassery, Inglourious Basterds. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard he was making Django Unchained, a spaghetti-western with the same edge and quirks of his previous films. Let’s talk about that silent “D” now, shall we?

Here’s how The Weinstein Company describes the plot: “Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago. Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave.”

As I mentioned above, I agreed with MovieBoozer when they called Tarantino an “auteur.” If you don’t know what that means, “auteur” (French for “author”) started as a theory by French film director and critic François Truffaut, who suggested that a director’s film reflects the director’s personal, creative vision. Basically, by becoming an auteur, Tarantino has made it physically impossible for us to separate his personality from his work (kind of in the same way that you can’t listen to a Taylor Swift song without knowing which one of her goddamn breakups the song is about). This is why Django Unchained has more similarities to Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 and Inglourious Basterds than it does with any other Civil War-centered film about a slave. Because all of his films feature his unique, eccentric style through common elements of art, design, and direction.

Being a Tarantino fan, I pay close attention to these artistic details because I’ve seen them before in his other films—an inside joke that is somewhat lost on the average moviegoer. I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, directors have trademarks in their films that define them from other directors (like how Spielberg always pairs a bold score by John Williams with his heroic stories). But Tarantino has several that he likes to employ in his films. Two of the more easily-spotted and less dramatic Tarantino trademarks in Django Unchained were the bar and torture scenes, which you’ll find as common settings in his other films.

Though his better, more obvious trademarks are the ones that people often mention as reasons why they don’t like his films or his style. These would be things like the rush zoom from a wide shot to a close-up on a character’s face with a quirky sound effect; the God’s eye point-of-view shot (like the one right after Django surrenders in the shootout at Candyland Mansion); the Ennio Morricone music mixed with music from various genres and decades; the numerous close-ups of his actors’ bare feet (He has a foot fetish); and a subtle cameo by the director, himself (He was one of the mining company employees with an Australian accent toward the end of the film). If it weren’t for the fact that Tarantino is solid in his use of these elements in his films, he would seem weird and amateurish.

But Tarantino, as the auteur, is all about presentation, and that presentation certainly doesn’t fall flat with Django Unchained. In fact, I think that’s why the dialogue between Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django (Jamie Foxx), and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) about Candie’s fighting mandingo, Eskimo Joe, having more “panache” in his presentation was funny because “panache” is exactly how one would describe Tarantino’s direction of his films.

Django Unchained is actually a cool mix of revenge narrative, “buddy cop” storyline with the typical white/black actor combination, and homage to the 1966 Italian spaghetti-western Django (The lead actor from that film, Franco Nero, makes a cameo in Django Unchained during Candie’s mandingo fight). Now, we know the story focuses on Django and Dr. Schultz teaming up to hunt bounties and rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from slavery. But what some of you may not know (or may not have noticed, if you already saw the film) was that the very details of what would happen in Django Unchained were revealed in the first thirty minutes or so of the film.

You see, there’s a scene where Dr. Schultz tells Django the German tale (I believe it’s originally Norse) of Siegfried and Broomhilda. The story details Siegfried’s rescue of Broomhilda after conquering the mountain, the dragon, and the hell-fire. And what exactly does Django do in Django Unchained? He tracks bounties with Dr. Schultz over the snowy mountains; he meets plantation owner Calvin Candie, who has a particular fascination with smoking (How dragonly of him); and he gets caught in a massive shootout in Candie’s mansion, which he blows up with explosives in the film’s final scene before riding away with his rescued Broomhilda. If this frame story technique feels reminiscent of David Carradine’s awesome monologue in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where he explains Superman’s story in order to tell Beatrice why he tried to kill her, that’s because it is. Tarantino likes to tease us with these little anecdotes to give us some plot depth (and spoilers).

What the audience will no doubt find great about Django Unchained is that Tarantino’s screenplay is extremely hilarious while still handling the topics of slavery and racism very delicately. (Before I discuss the use of the n-word in this movie, as that’s an entirely other point, let me explain what I mean here.) When we see a slave being whipped or killed brutally, it’s not funny. When we see the two mandingos fighting at Candie’s Cleopatra Club for Candie’s viewing pleasure, it’s disturbing. When we see the pain on Broomhilda’s face after she is removed from her punishment in the hot box, there’s nothing but pity. In the same way that we were unnerved hearing the Germans speak disgustingly of the Jews in Inglourious Basterds, we are unnerved seeing the horrible things done to the black slaves in this film. If anything, the character of Dr. Schultz is the relatable voice in this film that we hear echoing in our own minds when we see these scenes. He is just as against slavery as we are, and he is just as disturbed by the images as we are.

But this isn’t an apologist film, nor is it the “White Man to the Rescue!” story that all other Civil War films seem to perpetuate. Sure, Dr. Schultz sets Django free in the beginning and helps him develop a new confidence as a free man, but Schultz eventually dies, which leaves Django to determine his own fate. Now, as I said before, this film is also extremely hilarious. The scene with plantation owner Big Daddy and his idiotic band of KKK followers (Surprise, Jonah Hill cameo!) arguing about the size of the eyeholes in the bags they wear on their heads during the attempted ambush on Dr. Schultz and Django is probably one of the best comedic scenes I’ve seen in a Tarantino film. Not to mention, the tense scene where Dr. Schultz shoots a town sheriff point-blank and then monologues in the most polite way possible to the hundred guns on him about his jurisdiction as a bounty hunter.

Now, the big one that everyone is talking about, of course, is the multiple usage of the n-word throughout this film. (Author’s Note: I’d just like to say that, as a former student of linguistics, I have no problem using the n-word in full under the proper academic context, nor would I have an issue writing it in my analysis of this film. However, as I know there are many who still associate the word negatively and would take my use of it with offense, I’ve decided to censor it.) Many have said that the multiple usage of the n-word in this film was due to Tarantino’s lust for vulgarity and shock-value, which, while somewhat true, is hardly the reason why he employed it.

I think some people are forgetting that this is a movie set in the South a few years before the Civil War began. Tell me—what exactly did white Southerners call the black slaves during that time period? Oh, right. The n-word. Do you remember reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school? Well, guess what word was used constantly throughout that 1885 novel? The n-word. I’m not saying that the n-word’s usage wasn’t used in a derogatory manner. Because it certainly was (which is why people don’t like it today). The point is that that’s how people referred to the blacks of their time, in the same way those from the Muslim part of Africa were called moors in Shakespeare’s time. The fact that all of the black actors in Django Unchained were referred to with the n-word only made this period piece seem more authentic. And truly, I only noticed the first time someone said the n-word in the movie. After that, it became commonplace for the movie’s characters and setting.

Jamie Foxx unsurprisingly was a total badass as gun-slinging freed man Django. His performance reminded me a lot of those in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s in that, whenever he got his comeuppance with a white man, the audience was like “Hell yeah, Django! You kill that honky!” (Okay, they didn’t actually say that, but that was the vibe.) Although he played the hardened killer, Foxx did manage to show us some deeper emotions with Django—like when he was told to shoot a man in front of his son for bounty, or when other slaves were being abused, and even when Dr. Schultz was lying dead before him in a barn.

His love interest, Kerry Washington, who played Broomhilda, was kind of underwhelming for me. She looked beautiful, and she played the fearful, damsel-in-distress role well, but her performance was greatly overshadowed by the other actors. One such overshadowing actor was Samuel L. Jackson, who played Calvin Candie’s main slave, Stephen. His performance was fantastic. Stephen was one of those characters that you hated and liked all at the same time because he said really funny things (like when he was shocked to see Django on a horse), but then he also had begun to develop the same evil qualities as his master, as they had been together for several years. I also noticed that Stephen was the only character who used “motherf***er” (a Samuel L. Jackson trademark) in his dialogue.

I have to say that my favorite performances came from Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio though. Waltz, who played bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, is one of my favorite actors. After his performance as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, I was talent-crushing hard. Seriously, I don’t know what the Germans are teaching their actors, but holy shit. It’s like Waltz is on a completely different level than all other actors. As Dr. Schultz, Waltz had this cheerful politeness and several funny characteristics (like always introducing his horse, Fritz) despite being a character who kills people for money. Not to mention, his slow, deliberate delivery of his lines is entrancing. I couldn’t ever take my eyes off of him when he was speaking in this movie. On top of that, Waltz also had great chemistry with Jamie Foxx, a pair which I never would’ve thought to put together. Having already won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Inglourious Basterds, it comes as no surprise that Waltz is once again nominated for Best Supporting Actor at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards for his performance as Dr. King Schultz (God, I hope he wins).

Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes (but not the Academy Awards) as well for his performance as plantation owner Calvin Candie. I know several people wish DiCaprio would stop taking these unattractive, darker roles and return to the heartthrob roles that he’s been trying to escape ever since Titanic, but I disagree. DiCaprio is so goddamn good as Candie. Like Waltz was with Schultz, DiCaprio gave Candie an air of politeness, despite the fact that he was an evil man with disturbing pleasures.

My favorite scene with him was the dining room scene. At first, Candie doesn’t know he’s being led on by Django and Dr. Schultz about the mandingo purchase (They’re actually trying to buy Broomhilda). But then Stephen tells him of his guests’ deceit. When Candie finally realizes what they’re doing, DiCaprio gives a frightening performance reminiscent of Waltz’s intense first scene in Inglourious Basterds (which goes to show how good Tarantino is at writing villains). He had me sitting on the edge of my seat as he talked about the phrenology of whites and blacks before he finally lashed out at his guests. After that scene, I’m saddened that he wasn’t included with Waltz in the Academy Award nominations.

Overall, Django Unchained is a hilariously gory spaghetti-western with a hint of ’70s blaxploitation and buddy cop. Tarantino, once again, creates a film that handles a heavy topic delicately while still maintaining his quirky style, witty dialogue, and wonderfully diverse soundtrack. Jamie Foxx delivers a badass yet conflicted performance as the film’s main character, Django, while Christoph Waltz puts in a performance that possibly tops his performance as Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, giving him Best Supporting Actor nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

While Django Unchained has multiple usage of the n-word, it doesn’t seem done for shock-value; rather, it seems synchronized with the film’s plot and setting in communicating our nation’s terrible past. This film is definitely on par with (if not slightly better than) Tarantino’s other films. If you’re looking for well-known Tarantino trademarks in this film, don’t worry; they’re there.

Django Unchained: A+

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