Django Unchained: A review
& An open letter to Quentin Tarantino
Chapter 1: The (mostly) SPOILER FREE review
Django Unchained is a fusion of style and tone that shows an even greater understanding of storytelling and genre than Tarantino's previous outing, Inglorious Basterds.
"That's a bold statement!" Yes it is, and a true one at that.
Every beat and scene turn, every performance and every cameo nod, handled with the appropriate subtlety or explosiveness Tarantino is known for, but each with the perfect proportion needed to make the scene deliver on all levels. In Django, the hand of a master is present in some very memorable ways.
It harkens back most, to his 1997 outing Jackie Brown. Often described as resembling the work of a "more mature" filmmaker, it was my favorite of his movies for a long time. It is both exactly a Tarantino film, and not one. As an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, so in tune with the heart of the story it is believed by Leonard himself to more true than the original book. It is a smooth, dangerous, unabashedly romantic affair, and I'm not talking about the director' love of an era. The palpable chemistry, the unattainable, youthful lust between Pam Grier and Robert Forster, as Jackie Brown & Max Cherry, is one of my favorite cinematic relationships. Granted, for that flick, everything is playing in Tarantino's favor with all the 70s delights, and crime genre tomes. But there are miracles all over in that movie. One of the most audacious characteristics of Jackie Brown, is that it is a heist film that isn't about the heist, and a romance, that isn't about the having of it. Spoiler alert, Jackie Brown and Max Cherry never "get together" in the film. To shift the focus off of those two plots is both bold and brilliant. Tarantino focused instead, on the emotional experience of the characters, and zeroed in on the "escape" of Jackie herself, from the clutches of the sinister Ordell Robbie. A villain so deliciously played by Samuel L. Jackson, it is perhaps still my favorite performance of his. (Although he owns in the underrated masterpiece Black Snake Moan.)
I contest that Jackie Brown is not the work of a "more mature" director, but rather a mature love story. And, understanding the true heart of the story, Tarantino was able to inhabit his lead characters' experience, and made the film feel as they do.
The reason I bring all that up, and why I think Django evokes Jackie Brown, is that they have a several those traits in common.
The bounty hunting in Django Unchained is as secondary as the heist in Jackie Brown. Both center on a relationship you can' t help but root for, (in this case two relationships), caught beneath the heel of an impossible adversary. Both movies have stakes so high, and such gripping emotional tension, that you thank Quentin for the laughs when they arrive. In each the laughs are abundant, but they're not comedies, (an earmark of Tarantino style.) Both exude danger and sex appeal. Django and Jackie Brown feel the smoothest out of all his films, where the tone of the humor, emotion, action and tension, all feel inline with the experience, with no stand-out moments of self-conscious homage or tongue-in-cheek nod. Yet they each have their share of homage. Finally, both films aren't shy about being romantic. They revel in it, allowing us to really invest in the ride.
Like Inglorious Basterds, the dialogue in Django is of an eloquent intelligence that lifts the experience to inspiring levels, wherein you can't help but be distracted once or twice by just how damn good the writing is. All his films share glimmers of this, crafting many now classic scenes. The difference in Django Unchained is that Tarantino doesn't have film and popular music for his characters to refer to in dialogue. So the script feels more organic to the period than Basterds. But don't be alarmed. There are a number of lines lifted from genre favorites, and one overt film reference that would be noticeably missed, had it been left out, and it is delivered with just the proper dash of tongue-in-cheek.
In one particular scene, (SPOLIER) Christophe Waltz, who also surpasses himself, recounts to Django the classic Germanic/Norse legend of heroism, Siegfried. It is a marvelous retelling. (END SPOILER) It can be said that Tarantino is a writer's writer, that he is known for his dialogue, and it was said by Tarntino himself that Waltz is the perfect actor for him. Much in the way that some actors are more perfect for Mamet or Shakespeare than others, Waltz thrives in the skin of the mysterious, bad-ass do-gooder, Dr. Schultz. The man simply is the epitome of quiet mastermind. With the charm of a sorcerer, he entrances with the smallest word or gesture. In this performance he is equal parts aristocrat and assassin. Somehow his graceful air ensures us along the way that everything is going to be just fine, even though a stacked-deck of circumstances would beg to differ.
Leonardo Dicaprio is perfect here. Poison honey drips from his lips when he speaks, occasionally flashing his foul brown teeth in a sly smile, or baring them in the downturn of his grimace when he's displeased. I love to watch Dicaprio work. He's truly immersed in the skin of Monsieur Calvin Candie, delighting in his own malevolence. His performance reminds me a bit, of Gary Oldman's turn as Drexel Spivey in True Romance. Not surprising, considering their characters' similarities.
Jamie Foxx cuts the ideal image of our "Siegfried", quietly simmering with purpose and danger. "The kid's a natural," Shultz quips in a darkly funny moment. They are natural together, too, with a very enjoyable chemistry. A dynamic duo as fun to watch as Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. I enjoy Foxx most when stripped raw of his own "cool". Like his turn as Max in Collateral, or as Ray Charles, he has a vulnerability as Django, but this time, he walks with a physical power that makes you almost sorry for his enemies. Almost.
Sam Jackson finally returns from the land of Marvel superheroes to deliver a scene stealing turn as a duplicitous curmudgeon who surprised me with nearly every line he muttered and seethed.He's at his best when he has a whole new skin to inhabit, and Quentin crafted a role ideally suited for him. (I have to give Jackson more credit though, he really stood out upon my recent re-watching of the Long Kiss Good Night. Especially in the scenes where he has to sing what he's doing, because he has a terrible short-term memory, crooning hilarious little blues riffs to remind himself of things.)
Kerry Washington is radiant as the damsel in distress. Although that archetype is tiresome and hollow in movies about violent men, Tarantino gave her a lot to work with as the gifted, intelligent Hildie. She breathes calm into the frame and, as Shultz says "is worthy of all the passion (she) inspires." It should be noted that for a damsel in distress to be believable, we must love with her as much as the hero. This can't be achieved by simply choosing a pretty face. Kerry Washington brings not only luminous beauty, but also a level of vulnerability that matches the heart of the story, and that of Django.
As required, you cannot help but root for the reunion of these lovers.
This is perfectly underscored by his use of genre music, as keen and rousing as ever. The score feels more organic as well, despite Tarantino's usual "cherry-pickin'" from other films. Aided by the gorgeous original piece "Ancora Qui", that QT finally managed to get from the great Ennio Morricone, and the infectious original theme "Django!" by Luis Bacalov and Rocky Roberts.
Django Unchained is at once a barreling revenge ride and a genre bending epic, with a crystalline understanding of the cruelty of trading human property. Although much like a Spaghetti Western in feel, Tarantino manages to portray American Slavery with the perfect amount of humanity and humility. I say this in direct response to Spike Lee's quote, that he won't see Django because "American Slavery was not a Spaghetti Western." I defy Spike Lee to see this film and not like it. It has similar flare to the hand Lee himself showed in directing Malcolm X, and is literally different, only in that it is a story told from the other side of the table, as it were. With the same opinion on race showed in Lee's film. And it is as romantic as some of Lee's early efforts.
Mr. Lee, with all due respect, perhaps look past the cover of the book. No offense meant, but isn't that one of the messages you preach?
Django Unchained has shades of Tarantino's best, Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, and True Romance. It IS the work of a more mature filmmaker, but because it is so well-balanced, so loving, and so bloody entertaining.
Even though Basterds ends with Aldo Raine's quip "I do believe this is my masterpiece," for the price of MY admission, Tarantino didn't stop there. He surpasses himself yet again with Django Unchained.
Chapter 2: the Letter
Dear Mr Tarantino,
May I call you Quentin?
Quentin, I would like to address your recent statement that you may retire after your tenth film.
To quote Van Morrison, (in the most co-dependent fanboy fashion I can muster), "baby, please don't go!"
I understand that an artist needs to follow what they feel is right. I've made lots of bold statements and "unpopular" decisions to honor my creativity. I get that it's good to go out on top, and not deliver a diminishing product. Hitchcock's last couple movies weren't his best. Perhaps his last several. It is clear you've been on a kill crazy rampage of filmmaking and publicity for a number of years, and you've been delivering the goods all along. But I also know that you are a born storyteller, and you have the movie bug worse than anybody ever. But you are far from your twilight years, and from the way you understand and use story, I believe there is more in you, young Skywalker.
This is absolutely, 100%, not for me to say, but I just don't believe you can retire. I say that with the utmost admiration and respect. Please don't stop doing what you do. You clearly delight in telling stories through the medium of cinema.
If you left, after a short while, you'd miss it and be back in your head, with a whole new world of characters forming. It's only natural, because it is part of you. It's obvious to me because I make stories, and could never put it down.
Of course this is entirely just my opinion, and sentimental wishful thinking.
But even this week, you have shown your knack for seeing stories within stories, upon announcement of Killer Crows. I'd be willing to bet there's a lot more where that came from.
I know I'm not alone in saying I'd like to see what another 20 years of Tarantino is like.
You gotta take a break, understandable. You wanna look around. Who wouldn't? It's a big, creative world out there. Maybe you want to write some books. Or perhaps some comics, (I know a decent artist, Ahem.) Life takes us places, and we should let it.
But retire from movies? I WON'T buy that for a dollar.
Wasn’t it Capra who said “film is a disease, once you get it, it never lets you go”?
Again, this is only editorial. An appeal, in the court of cinema. You've brought us a lot. I, for one, am more enriched for it. It would be tough to see you go. So please don't.
Then all will be "right in the jungle."