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April 16, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Django Unchained (2012)


Django Unchained (2012)

I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplays and films. He’s one of the rare living filmmakers that understand what filmmaking is all about from every perspective, shot by shot. His films usually deliver at least one Oscar-caliber performance are are shot beautifully; each camera position and movement has a purpose. Django Unchained is no exception.

At the film’s start a caption tells that the film takes place two years before the start of the American Civil War. We then meet Django (Jamie Foxx), a black slave chained to a group of other black slaves. They traverse several different terrains and when they reach a dark forest, they are met by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He’s a bounty hunter and he’s on the lookout for three brothers. Django had previously worked on a plantation where those three brothers are situated and so Schultz frees Django and uses him to find those brothers, kill them, and collect the bounty on them. Simple enough.

As their partnership develops their friendship grows and Schultz is sympathetic to Django’s cause, because Django is married to a woman who was sold at the same auction to different people. Schultz proposes that he and Django partner up for the winter, that he train Django to ride a horse properly, shoot a gun like a pro, and hunt and track people down. After six months he begins to assist Django in finding his wife and if possible, legally obtain her.

If this film was to have a three act story structure, then the aforementioned actions would take place during the first act. The second act would be the part where Schultz and Django play the part of slavers on the lookout for strong, healthy Mandingos (contenders in a fictitious black slave fighting circuit) and who might also like to buy a nice, black, female slave to sweeten the deal. They hear word that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s wife, was purchased by an eccentric, remarkably racist dandy named Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio). They acquaint themselves with him and eventually travel to his plantation, Candyland, in order to partake in the (fake) business of purchasing Mandingos and hopefully throwing in Broomhilda as a sweetener.

The third act of the film would consist of treachery, legal documentation, and eventually lots of blood and justifiable murder.

The fourth act would… wait… fourth act? Okay, let me backtrack. The film boasts the three act story structure from early on but half way through, audiences take notice that it’s more of a sprawling epic than a traditional Western. Kind of like those action serials that used to populate theaters during the first half of the twentieth century.

Django Unchained (2012)

In Django Unchained, one scene bleeds into another, long passages of time go by, and Django develops into, basically, an action hero but a wonderfully relatable one. His quick-draw is lightning fast, he embodies different characters (where applicable) with terrific conviction, and eventually even learns how to read proficiently. As he becomes a more stoic character, Schultz, Django’s mentor and father figure, becomes more human and frail. Because he’s a German and is unaccustomed to blatant racism and brutal, unprovoked bouts of violence Schultz is a far frailer individual and that becomes more noticeable as the film progresses. And that’s done on purpose, of course.

DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy (a terrific performance) is a repulsive individual, spouting the N-word at every chance that he gets, but is also, aside from being dumb, a crazy individual. Then there’s Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson): the most repulsive character in the film and one of the most repulsive characters I’ve ever seen in a film. I will say nothing about the character or speak of Jackson’s terrific performance. I would hate to spoil the fun.

Django Unchained received unwarranted controversy upon its theatrical release due to the excessive use of the N-word, and the realistic depiction of slavery and some of the violence that abounds. It is unfair to call the film (or Tarantino) racist simply because all of its characters use the N-word frequently. They do so because it was the only word used at that time. The terms “colored” and “black” emerged during the twentieth century and I’d hate to point back to when I mentioned that this film takes place in the Antebellum South.

Still, I do issue a warning that the N-word is used frequently (some say close to 120 times) and also that the special effects that showcase violence are practical effects. The blood, and there’s a ton of it in the “third act”, is all practical (No CG! Can you believe it?!), and so are the other disturbingly realistic depictions of violence. But it’s not as a violent a film as it sounds on paper; it’s nothing like Inglourious Basterds (2009) or the Kill Bill saga (2003-2004).

Django Unchained is one of 2012’s best films because it’s bold, unconventional, terrifically shot (and on film, mind you), fantastically acted (Waltz won another Oscar for his performance here), and acts like an epic. And as a result it is an epic. That being said, it’s not Tarantino’s best film. It falls somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to make better films than Pulp Fiction (1994) or Jackie Brown (1997) but Django Unchained is a heck of a Western.

What I most love about this film is that its entire premise centers on an ex-slave who’s simply trying to get back his wife. That’s it. What more can one ask for in life?

The special features include Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained; Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained; The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis; Tarantino XX Blu-ray Collection Promo; and Django Unchained Soundtrack Promo.