The D is silent in “Django Unchained,” the new film by Quentin Tarantino released Dec. 25, or as some may call it, one of the greatest Christmas gifts of all time. Paying tribute to the famous Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, this revenge flick stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who is freed by a German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in his second project with Tarantino). During the movie’s first act, the two men team up for the winter, tracking down and killing outlaws in the American Midwest. In the second act, they venture into the Deep South in search of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is in the clutches of Calvin J. Candie, portrayed with a charming and dangerous flare by the superb Leonardo DiCaprio. Nevertheless, it is with great finesse that Tarantino tackles America’s original sin, striking a nice balance between atrocity and satire — a balance that would make Mark Twain a very proud man, indeed.
From the opening minutes of “Django,” I knew that I was in for a treat. It is the winter of 1858 (three years before the Civil War), as a group of slaves, shackled by the feet, are being transported across a beautiful Texas landscape to the catchy theme of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 western, “Django,” this movie’s namesake. Among the group is the one and only Django. On their journey, the group encounters King Schultz, a man who rides around on a wagon with a giant tooth perched on its roof, the perfect cover. With his salt and pepper beard, Waltz reminds us why we loved his performance in “Inglourious Basterds” as the devious Col. Hans Landa. Dr. King Schultz, arguably the best character of the movie, is a smooth-talking gentleman who is fast with a gun and completely fearless. Schultz is a bounty hunter (the Boba Fett of the Old West); a servant of the court who obtains warrants that give him a license to kill other men. Despite his murderous activities, he despises slavery and purchases Django after an unconventional transaction, taking him on as a protegee of sorts. As the two ride around the West collecting bounties, we see breathtaking shots of snow-covered plains and herds of buffalo. When asked how he likes the bounty hunting business, Django responds, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Foxx plays the eponymous role with a quiet intensity, hardened by the injustices his character has suffered. Like a small child, his naivete is amusing once he begins to learn what life is like as a free man. Feeling vaguely responsible for his apprentice, Schultz agrees to help find Django’s wife, who is in the custody of the aforementioned plantation owner who is involved in the “Mandingo fighting” business, the sport of training slaves to fight one another to the death. In one of the best performances of his career thus far, DiCaprio dons a southern accent to play this amicable, yet cruel and sadistic person. When we first meet him, he casually watches two slaves beat the living snot out of each other just as one would watch a game of tennis. To gain his trust, Schultz and Django pose as individuals interested in purchasing a slave fighter of their own. As a result, they are invited to Candie’s plantation, appropriately named Candyland, the location of Broomhilda. It is here that we are introduced to Stephen, the head slave, an “Uncle Tom” character, who is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson (his 5th project with Tarantino). Jackson is hilarious in this role as a hunched over, crotchety slave who worships his master and wishes he were white. Nevertheless, he’s as sharp as a whip, and its consequences will be saved for your viewing.
A word to the wise: This movie is a hard R. That being said, this wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without the plethora of violence that “Django Unchained” has to offer. Django is a killing machine capable of murdering copious amounts of people without being hurt once. He is reminiscent of the original Western protagonists like The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) or the original Django (played by Franco Nero, who has a small cameo in the film), who could fire a pistol like it was a machine gun. All in all, there are plenty of shootouts and blood to satisfy the cowboy in all of us. Suffice it to say, race is the pervasive theme of this film. Tarantino uses the N-word (a word that is not foreign to his films) as liberally in his screenplay as a teenager would use LOL today. In addition, there are scenes of the cruel punishments delivered to slaves, like whippings and solitary confinement in “hot boxes.” One particular unnerving sequence has a runaway slave being ripped apart by dogs. While uncomfortable to watch, they are necessary evils to portray the awfulness of slavery at the time. Still, there is an air of parody to the movie as well, which makes the suffering worth enduring. For instance, one of my favorite scenes, which includes a small cameo from Jonah Hill, involves a group of early and moronic Klan members complaining that they can’t see out of their hoods, which is worth the price of admission. Even the movie’s soundtrack was incredible, featuring pieces from artists such as Jim Croce, 2Pac and RZA.
Armed with his smart, self-written script, Tarantino has hit another home run with “Django Unchained.” As with all his films, his love of movies is first and foremost in every shot you see and every word you hear. If I had to sum up his career in this one movie, I’d say that it has the ingenuity of “Pulp Fiction,” the racial punch of “Jackie Brown,” the gore of “Kill Bill/Reservoir Dogs,” and the historical importance of “Inglourious Basterds.” It pays homage to movies long past and to America’s history. As the kids would say these days, “Django” is off the chain.