$9.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $14.00
The worst thing that can be said about “Django Unchained,” the latest from helmer Quentin Tarantino, who also wrote the screenplay, is that it is two hours and forty-five minutes long. Auds will have to hit the restroom before pic unspools. There is no intermission. Exhibitors will not be too crazy about it. With a supporting cast that reads like a red carpet at a 1980s Oscar show, headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, also in a supporting role, and Jamie Foxx in the title role, it should draw, but at 165 minutes, exhibitors will not be able to pack too many screenings into a day.
For “Kill Bill,” Tarantino shot so much film that distributor Harvey Weinstein suggested he split it into two pix. He did. It worked. “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” which averaged two hours in length were the result. Released a year apart, both were profitable. “Kill Bill: Vol. 3” is reportedly in the works. In Hollywood nothing succeeds like excess.
That said, “Django Unchained” (the “D” is silent — it’s one of pic’s punch lines) is pretty good Tarantino fare although the sound recording could be better. It sports a lot of stars of yore so well costumed that one needs a scorecard to know who is playing whom. It also sports a ton of blood spatter, gunfire, explosions and plenty of dark humor. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute, but there is enough counterpoint to pic’s few moments of pathos for auds to emerge from the theater with a grin. Set in the pre-Civil War South, it features an anachronism to remember: Dynamite. Unfortunately for the historical record, Alfred Nobel did not invent it until 1867, two years after the American Civil War ended. But Tarantino never let facts get in the way of a good screenplay. Accordingly, “Django Unchained” is simultaneously Western, Drama, Adventure, Crime, Fantasy, and Comedy — as well as Buddy Film.
Time for a note. Pic’s title was inspired by a Spaghetti Western, “Django,” starring Franco Nero released in 1966. It’s the story of a cowboy caught between gangs run by the Mexicans and the KKK. Tarantino is a fan of the genre as well as a fan of Asian action films. And for the really curious, “Nero” is Italian for “Black” — a little inside joke about the casting. Franco Nero has a bit part in “Django Unchained” — but more on that later.
Like “Kill Bill,” “Django” starts out with the protagonist in a real pickle not unlike Uma Thurman’s predicament in the opening reel of “Kill Bill.” Django is a fairly clever slave on the run. He has gotten caught and shortly thereafter encounters German dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who played the bad guy in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009, see review at http://tedflicks.com). Dr. Schultz, who travels in a wagon topped by a giant tooth (hiding in plain sight, says Tarantino) is actually a bounty hunter. Evidently it is more profitable than dentistry. Django is on a mission — he is searching for his wife, an unlikely German-speaking house slave named by her German-American former master Brunhilde von Schaft (Kerry Washington). They strike a bargain. Schultz buys Django and promises him both his freedom and a third of the take if he becomes his bounty-hunting sidekick for several months.
A bounty hunter in 19th Century America was a cross between a lawman, a private eye, and a shootist, pace John Wayne. This was the day of posters blazing the legend, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” It turns out that Django is a natural shot — and a natural actor. Much of the plot involves role playing. Schultz pretends to be a dentist — which is none to difficult because he was a dentist before becoming a bounty hunter. Django first masquerades as his valet, and later as a black slaver. He sticks to Schultz’s admonition to stay in character. His transformation from slave to power figure is both fast and complete. It’s as if he somehow becomes Dr. Schultz, and since the latter is killed before the final reel, it offers pic’s most satisfying plot arc. Anyone remember Gene and Finny in “A Separate Peace?” High school English teachers used the book on which it is based as an example of the “doppelganger” theory of fiction.
After a great deal of successful kills which net the pair many thousands of dollars in rewards, the time comes for Schultz to live up to his part of the bargain — they need to find Brunhilde. This is where Django comes into his own in the role of black slaver. It is also the point where pic could have been split in two as in “Kill Bill.”
Public records searched by the pair indicate that Brunhilde (the name is that of a Valkyrie princess in German mythology) has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notorious Mississippi plantation owner and the fourth largest producer of cotton in the US.
Here is where Tarantino takes leave of all pretense of reality — not that there is anything new about that.
Candie, who does not speak French but likes to be called “Monsieur Candie,” is a total jerk. His obsession is pitting muscular black slaves against each other in fights to the death — a kind of private gladiator thing on which bets are placed in allegedly upscale salons where “high class” prostitutes are the other entertainment. DiCaprio milks the role for all it is worth. Your critic might even say that he is at his best playing caricature rather than character.
Schultz and Django concoct a sting to gain Candie’s confidence and get as far as dinner at the “big house” where a deal is struck. They find Brunhilde and use a ruse to get her cleaned up and dressed. She had been in the “hot box” for three days as a punishment for trying to escape. Samuel L. Jackson as elderly head house slave Stephen, is the fly in the ointment. Stephen’s relationship with Candie is a tad weird — Stephen really runs the plantation, and in private he is Candie’s equal — this is brought home in a scene where the pair sip brandy in Candie’s library while Stephen explains how he sees through Schultz’s and Django’s scam. This is set up by a scene in which Stephen is writing checks and signing Candie’s name to pay the plantation’s bills. (There is also a suggestion of an incestuous relationship between Candie and his sister [Laura Cayouette], but it is not explored.)
One must give credit to Tarantino for the well placed flashbacks which form much of pic’s exposition. “Django Unchained” is complicated enough. The flashbacks, mostly less than a minute, help auds figure out what motivates the principals.
Pic’s pivotal moment is a confrontation between Candie and Schultz, whose bluff has been called. Schultz forks over $12,000 for Brunhilde. The papers are signed, but Candie insists that Schultz shake his hand. Instead, filled with revulsion, Schultz kills him with a Derringer hidden in his sleeve. Candie’s guys shoot Schultz dead. Then the fun begins.
Tarantino characterized his good guys as so loathsome that in any other picture they’d be the bad guys. He’s right. At least they avoid one sin: Hubris. Tarantino’s bad guys practically ooze it.
About to be emasculated by one of the late Candie’s trackers, Django, captured, is to be sent to a mine where blacks are worked to death.
The scene is a tad funny and certainly worth an “R” rating. Jamie Foxx is strung up by his feet à la Mussolini but buck naked. A circumcised male member, which would make a porn star proud, protrudes, upside down. (Your critic suspects a body double and some tinsel town tinkering.) The tracker has heated a knife red hot in a fire and is about to make Foxx’s Django sing soprano. Suddenly Stephen intervenes with orders from the late Candie’s sister that Django is to be sent to the Gulag for slaves.
On the way there, a little cunning and a wanted poster in his pocket get the mine employees off his case and on the track of Candie’s trackers — who are all wanted men. (In case anyone does not know what a tracker did in the antebellum south, the job was to capture runaway slaves.)
Tarantino figures in this scene as a mine employee and in earlier scene as the wimpy guy in a hooded white posse. Said posse’s problem is that no one can see out of the hoods. It’s a touch of Hitchcock and Truffault on steroids. Ah, reverence!
Pic’s dénouement features a couple of scenes which outdo the theater fire that ends “Inglorious Basterds.” One of them highlihgts the anachronistic dynamite. Nitroglycerine would have been the explosive of choice then.
Kudos go to the players whose convincing work aids in suspension of disbelief. Tech and creative credits are good. The supporting cast includes, in addition to Franco Nero, such aging stars as Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, and Bruce Dern — all so proficient and well costumed and made up that one needs numbers on their shirts to tell who they are.
Set design excels. Lensing (Robert Richardson) is more than adequate. Score is typical of a Tarantino pic. Cutter Fred Raskin ought to have been more forthright given Tarantino’s tendency to wind on, but a job is a job. Tarantino’s screenplay, the musical score, and the hysterical preposterousness of the plot compensate in some measure for the length.
“Django Unchained” is neither a picture for children nor for auds who are offended by the “N” word in any form. Anyone else will be amused by the jokes, captivated by the action, and prompted to think a bit about the social dynamic of racism in America. Pic as of this writing is not yet rated. It is scheduled for release in the USA and Canada on Christmas Day, 2012, if the Mayans are wrong.