Django Unchanined (2012)
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Christoph Walz, Samuel L. Jackson, Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio,
After retrieving (buying) the slave, Django, from some resellers, Dr. King Shultz, a bounty hunter, employs Django to identify some people he’s been tracking. Django has personal experience with these men. After completing their transaction, the two agree to a business partnership that will end with Shultz helping Django locate and free his wife. The two quickly become friends. During their rescue plot, feces and fans collide.
I know many of you (one in particular) will feel that I’m prejudiced in favor of Mr. Tarantino. I can’t concern myself with such matters.
For me, as a Tarantino person, the movie is defined in the way that it diverges from expectation. You might think that King is just another Landa at the beginning of the movie. You might expect a chilling monologue from him. You might expect a beautifully staged one take scene. You might expect cartoonish departures. You might look for a twisty timeline or a set of plots that intersect at a key moment. I expected each of these things, some of them almost to the last frame. I don’t feel that the denial of these pleasures was a cheat, because this is not a pleasant movie.
The story here is not very complicated. It goes from point to point. They have their little commissions, they grow together, Django learns things, they become fast friends. They enter their final task with a plan, and the plan doesn’t play out as expected. The little things within that story are what sets it aside. The way we see Django learn and the way we infer that he’s learned pair with each other perfectly. “Let [reading this] be your lesson for today,” communicates volumes both about how Django is learning and about how their relationship is growing. The chemistry between Walz and Foxx is undeniable, and in the earlier scenes it’s easy to see them having fun with each other.
Even though it’s not as tricksy as some of his earlier stuff, it still shot like Tarantino. It’s still amazing to behold where it’s supposed to be. Framing sets the tone in a way that he and few others can do. As always, the music is its own character. From fake-ish, modernized “western” songs through to anachronistic hip-hop everything has its place in this film. Actors have a chance to react, to emote. The number of characters who don’t pontificate is much larger than the usual two, and the camera lingers in a way that never feels forced. When we know that someone is watching someone else, we feel it in the shot. When we’re watching a conversation as an outside observer, we get exactly enough expression to understand what’s behind the eyes.
Speaking of the actors, this is a movie that is bursting at the seams with perfect performances. Walz is dependable as always. Foxx and Washington are each short on words, but each is a full character. DiCaprio really owns his disgusting fec, replete with haughty laughter at inappropriate moments and glances that know his hand is atop the bat. But Jackson, holy fuck. Jackson. Early in his performance I felt like I was getting a caricature of Cosby. That feeling dispelled about 20 words in. There’s such depth to his performance that he puts emotions back on the page. Stephen has his own roles to play, but they’re all coming from the same place.
This film represents a significant advancement in the maturity of Tarantino. To call it an exploitation film is to pigeonhole it unfairly. While it shares characteristics with such films it is so much more in every way. It is a thoroughly gory, visceral experience. Some of the violence is unnecessary, but it all serves the story. It all drives to a climax which is breathtaking to behold. My heart was racing for 10 minutes after the end of the credits.
Quentin is an adorable auteur, and he’s an intolerable interviewee. To hear him talk about how this movie changes the discussion of slavery in America makes me want to vomit. Unfortunately, it’s true. I’m white, and in the middle class. I went to a decent high school and I studied AP US history and we spent a fair amount of time on the Civil War. My education did not include the sorts of things we see in this movie, and I have no doubt that they happened, and far worse. We view slavery in an abstract way, how people were made to do things and sold to other people and had no control over their lives and lived in horrible conditions. We don’t think about the implications of humans as property. Those people were treated worse than cattle, worse than dogs, worse than lab animals. This was a Holocaust in America. I can watch just about anything, because I can suspend just about any disbelief. This is terrible to behold and totally believable. Every American should see this film.
There are two performances that make this movie. Shultz starts as a man who’s kind of given in to slavery. He despises it academically, but until he goes in with Django, even in his position he doesn’t see the things that happen. He doesn’t see the two men egged on to kill each other. He doesn’t see people literally torn apart by dogs. He doesn’t see young women put in the “hot box” for two days, with no sustenance. His arc is not something that we’ve seen from Tarantino before. In the earlier movies, everybody is pretty much in on the violence. Nobody turns away. (I can think of one exception to this, and that makes my point even stronger.)
Dr. King tries not to turn away, and he fails. He just can’t take it. In Walz’s most perfect scene he snaps completely. He can’t stand listening to the Fur Elise played on the harp as lives are being sold. He can’t stand to touch even Candie. And he breaks. It’s at once exhilarating and heartwrenching. Everyone could have gotten away if he had just shaken the fucker’s hand, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand to touch such a piece of garbage one more time. Killing Candie was his imperative, his destiny. He knew it would be the end of him and he did it anyway, and the way Walz plays it is utterly moving. As I watched his face, I almost lost it in the theater. Thinking back to it I’m welling up now. It’s clear in my head days later. His heart undoes his mind undoes his strength. In its way, it’s as difficult to watch as the scene with the dogs, or the one on one fight scene. It’s a beautiful scene in every imaginable way.
Then there’s Jackson. Stephen is even more despicable than Candie, because he’s totally in on Candie’s game while KNOWING that he’s every bit as good as Candie is, as are all of his fellows. He’s fully complicit. He knows what it means for Broomhilda to stay, but he’s more interested in saving his OWNER money than in letting the young flower go. He manages the torture of other slaves, to make his life just a little more comfortable. He’s the embodiment of the character that Django plays, and that irony is not lost as he sets Django up for the worst fate imaginable, far worse than the castration that was almost finished. He does it with glee, because Django dared to upset his place in life, his comfort, his seat at a desk, his handling of his master’s money. We watch him make these decisions. We see his face decide to do these things and then we seem him take to them with glee.
I would like someone to interview Jackson about his performance. I would like to know how he felt about it, and how he kept it together. To play this role as a black man is very important to the movie, and to our culture. But I can’t think about what it must have done to him.