Quentin Tarantino is a household name at this point. There's no reason to introduce him or to go through his body of work. If you've been alive in the last ten or fifteen years and are interested enough in film to be reading this, I'm going to just make the bet that you know who he is, and are familiar with his work. All that can really be said and all that needs to be said is that many of the movies you see today, much of the writing about movies that you read and everything in ecosystem that can be considered film, has been influenced by Quentin Tarantino. In the last twenty years, no one has put as heavy a foot print on the landscape of cinema. Argue that point as much as you want, but no one with even the slightest amount of objectivity in considering who has and who hasn't influenced film makers, journalism, music in film, marketing, and every aspect of the business and creative side of film culture is going to take it seriously.
Django Unchained is the next step in Tarantino's journey toward taking that legacy in a new direction. That new direction began with Inglorious Basterds, and it's obvious he's pushing forward. He is no longer strictly concerned with telling stories of mythic criminals of some dingy, unseen underground. He's now concerning himself with mythic criminals of dingy, unseen history. It's worth asking whether or not Tarantino felt his rewriting of World War II history didn't cause enough controversy and then decided he'd reach for the most controversial topic in American culture and society. The history of cinema was practically built around WWII stories. In some ways, that makes perfect sense, considering that the medium was coming to prominence as the war was happening. It's also one of the eras in history that's become the most mythologized and in many ways, been the foundation of the American people developing any positive association with their culture and society. It's the war which is undeniably the most just. When the war began, the extent of Nazi horror may not have been known, but it's incredibly hard to make the case that the revelation of Hitlers Final Solution and the extent to which he'd taken his genocidal vision doesn't still make WWII a just war. Whatever else can be said of the various aspects of the war and the way it was handled as a culture and society, the fact that it stopped a genocidal maniac from wiping the Jewish people from the face of the majority of continental Europe is an undeniably good and just thing. Considering how hallowed that history is to American's national conception, the fact Tarantino's rewriting of that history caused only the most minor controversy is a testament to the size of the silhouette he cuts across contemporary culture and cinema.
What could possibly generate more controversy than rewriting the history of World War II? Slavery. Where American culture and society have nearly fetishized WWII, it certainly hasn't attempted very many serious acts of retrospective introspection where slavery is concerned. Culturally, considering the part slavery played in the nations history, it's been essentially overlooked in comparison. Again, the film industry and film as a medium were coming to prominence as the war was actually happening, so in looking at the history of cinema and realizing the gigantic number of films that deal with it isn't really shocking, but to do the same with slavery, look back and count the number of films that deal directly with it as a central part of their narrative, and the degree to which we've been more or less unwilling to consider much of anything about slavery becomes clear. It's not something we like to think or have conversations about on any level.
Whatever else can be said about the controversy that is sure to (and is already starting to) pop up in relation to Django, the fact that Tarantino was willing to put slavery front and center, in a way that unflinchingly depicts its brutality and dehumanization as a whole, should be considered a good thing or at least a step in the right direction. Slavery is practically the protagonist in this film. It's an ever present aspect of the decisions the characters have to make. There's no soft pawing it's depth of effect on the society and the people living in it. It may not be portrayed with the kind of gravitas and melodrama many people traditionally expect and want to see in a film dealing with an issue of it's weight, but it isn't sweeping anything under the rug either. The film itself is definitely entertaining, but nothing in the films depiction of slavery is entertaining. It's brutal, bloody, ugly and as nasty as it can get. American culture isn't very good at dealing with big questions and big ideas directly. We do tend to be much better at dealing with them when the space between ourselves and the topic is a little wider because it's presented to us in one artistic medium or another. We're much, much better at telling the truth about ourselves by telling lies about people who never existed than we are at looking it directly in the eye. The questions that arise from Django Unchained, and there are many of them, are probably good to consider and discuss. Whether or not that will happen is something else altogether. Personally, having now actually seen the film, I want to take a little more time to think about that aspect of it before making any kind of definitive comment on any larger questions. Anything I might have said before seeing it would have been purely conjecture, because I couldn't have actually known what I was talking about if I hadn't seen it. Tarantino is definitely a film maker who is most interested in creating entertainment, and sometimes is able to blur the line between art and entertainment amazingly well, and Django definitely presents a wider perspective on slavery than mass audiences have probably ever seen, the question of just what that means in the context of our society and culture on a larger level, remains to be answered.
Now, what of the film purely from the perspective of the cinematic experience?
Even as the subject matter is his most controversial and least traditional, the film contains what is probably Tarantino's most conventional narrative structure and displays a level of discipline in regards to what is generally considered the "Tarantino style" that hasn't been seen in any of his films before. Don't get me wrong, the dialog is still stylized, still sharp and definitely pins the audience to their chairs, but there are far fewer instances of very long monologues or long tit for tat conversations. The soundtrack is still idiosyncratic and bombastic (in a way I personally appreciate), the cinematography is still very kinetic, the violence bloody and plenty, but more than any other film he's made, there is less of the feeling of Quentin Tarantino lurking barely off screen. Where his personality has always seemed ever present in his previous films, (something that many of his fans have loved and that his detractors have plainly and blatantly hated), the personalities of the characters, the actors and the story are absolutely dead center here. Django is more a film that has flourishes of Tarantino's signature style peppered through a much less self referential narrative. It's not that there aren't still aspects of the film that directly recall the spaghetti westerns that inspire much of the films aesthetic, but there are far fewer of them than his previous films contained and they aren't nearly as central to the films narrative or it's overall presentation. It's not a spaghetti western though, which is the really incredible trick Tarantino pulls off. More than any of his other films, it references it's influences, but is ultimately something else altogether.
What it most prominently borrows from the spaghetti western is in its perspective on what it is referencing. Spaghetti westerns grew out of Europeans digesting the aesthetics of the American western and removing the iconic cowboy hero image they solidified. They took a much more morally ambiguous perspective, and didn't present the characters or the events in the plot as being morally simplistic. Django definitely addresses the morality of it's narrative, and at least in the degree that it addresses the morality of the central characters actions, but it's not morally ambiguous in the sense of presenting the protagonists and antagonists as different sides of the same coin or different shades of the same moral grey area. If there is one central cue it takes from the history of the spaghetti western, it's that it has the feel of an epic, mythological story. It begins very intimately, and becomes increasingly expansive as the film continues, without losing it's focus. Even in that, it probably has his most well constructed and well rounded characters, at least as the central characters are concerned. With one notable exception, even as the secondary characters might not be as fully drawn, they're still incredibly vivid. What Tarantino has done is take the tropes and pitfalls of the spaghetti western and use them to make the audience feel comfortable and familiar enough to allow themselves to be carried into what is an otherwise completely different kind of film.
There is one trademark Tarantino aspect of the film that still stands out prominently. The performances are all superb. Christoph Waltz gives one of the best performances I've seen this year. He plays Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter and the man who sets the entire story of Django Unchained in motion by buying Django because he knows what the bounty hunters current targets look like. Schultz, being German and not believing in slavery, makes a deal with Django that if he can identify the men the bounty hunter is looking for, Schultz will give him a percentage of the bounty and set Django free. When Django proves to have quite a talent for the bounty hunting business, Schultz proposes the teach him everything he knows, in order to have a partner through the winter and make a good deal of money, at which point they will go attempt to find Django's wife.
Waltz makes this character full of empathy, fury, subtlety and intelligence. The character is in many ways the other side of the same coin that Hanz Landa was (the character he played in Inglorious Basterds). He can be incredibly charming, which he uses to his duplicitous ends, except that this time, the audience is meant to agree with and identify with those ends. Being Django's mentor, we are given a good opportunity to see that Schultz is a man who understands how to bend the law to his advantage and how to outsmart his adversaries. Schultz is a good bounty hunter for the same reason he's a good teacher and one of the more sympathetic characters in the film, he knows human nature. The more work Christoph Waltz gets, the better off the film going public is. He's incredibly entertaining, but the character retains a core humanity that helps the audience get completely in his corner. Schultz is an interesting, entertaining character and the journey he takes in this film is one of the most excellent strokes of the larger work that is Django Unchained.
Jamie Foxx can be a great actor. He has unfortunately not always made the best choices in what films he was willing to be an actor in. I've read and heard a few reviews that suggest his character fades into the background at some points in the film, and I don't actually agree with that. Jamie Foxx does great job of taking Django from being a slave whose sense of agency has to almost be coaxed out to being a fully blown character that becomes the heart of the ever present tension that is hangs over the last two thirds of the film. Even as the fact that his character is black in the world of southern slavery, and is therefore not able to completely engage some of the other characters in the film, Django is the center of the film on a minute by minute basis, pushing the action forward and then becoming a fire breathing bad ass in the last third of the film. Jamie Foxx does a great job or portraying all of the that journey. It's probably the most dynamic journey I've seen all year and Jamie Foxx portrayal of the character had my heart with him from the beginning to the end.
It's easy to make fun of people like Leonardo DiCaprio. He's in that upper echelon of celebrity and stardom that does seem truly other worldly. If someone like him agrees to be in a film, the chances that the film is actually going to get made go up exponentially. If he produces a film, the chances that it's going to get a nation wide release also go up exponentially. In the age of the internet and over exposure, many, many, many actors and celebrities come and go rather quickly. DiCaprio has lasted long than almost any of the other actors who were his contemporaries when he began, and he's still quite young. All of that being true, he can be an extremely compelling young actor. When Quentin Tarantino put out the word that Calvin Candie was the worst villain he'd ever crafted, he wasn't lying at all, and DiCaprio takes to the character with gusto. Calvin Candie is the owner of Candieland, a plantation of enough note that when Christoph Waltz bounty hunter mentions the name to Django, his reaction is that every slave in Mississippi knows about Candieland. DiCaprio brings together a combination of charisma and menace that's entertaining and completely, utterly evil in his actions. The horror of Calvin Candie though, is the fact that all his actions and attitudes are exceedingly normal. Being both wealthy and white in the South prior to the Civil War, everything about the society was designed to bend to his every whim. DiCaprio portrays him as a kind of petulant man-child, whose savagery is only held in check by the absolutely weird forms of manners and gentility that everyone is bound to. At one point, he more or less says that Southern hospitality dictates that if a guest wants a specific slave for sexual purposes, he must provide that slave. It's not the worst thing Candie does or says in the course of the film, by far, but it does make very clear just what it is that's behind who he is. Aside from owning the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi, he is engaged in the buying and selling of slaves for "mandingo fighting," the equivalent of dog fighting, with human beings. Males slaves were forced to fight to the death so that white men could bet on them, and of course, the owner of the winning slave would come away with a cut of the winnings. It's a kind of character DiCaprio hasn't played before, but he takes on the role with zeal and makes Candie a believable, but still incredibly vile character. He deserves some credit for this. There probably aren't a lot of actors at the level of celebrity who would be willing to take this kind of role. It's a great role, for any actor, but it's so deeply despicable and not even of the "evil genius" variety, because Candie isn't a genius. He's of no more than average intelligence probably, it's pretty clear that both Schultz and Django are both more intelligent than he is, and so is the slave that runs his house (we'll get to him) so what makes the role and the character as strong as it is has more to do with the characters place in the story, the power of Tarantino's script and DiCaprio's performance. There really isn't anything about the character that makes it the kind of role a "leading man," especially of DiCaprio's celebrity status, would normally take. Without this role being as well played and written as it is, the rest of the film wouldn't have stood the weight of making Django's journey as substantial and fulfilling as it is, and DiCaprio deserves to be recognized for how well he pulls this off.
As I alluded to, Calvin Candie is probably not bright enough to keep Candieland running on his own. His obsession with "mandingo fighting" alone would make him unable to handle the administration necessary for a plantation that size. As a result, he has a number of people he turns to in order to keep order, keep Candieland running and therefore, keep him in the splendid living to which he's accustomed. All of these roles are filled out by capable actors, and a few of them get their moments to shine throughout the film. But, the most indispensable individual to Calvin Candie is the slave who runs his house, Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson in what is definitely one of his best performances. He's an actor who can ham it up and chew the scenery with the best of them. That's not a slight either, there is reason his monologue in Pulp Fiction is one of the most recognized, most quoted and most parodied in contemporary film history, it was the kind of revelation to which it refers. When he's at his best, Samuel L. Jackson imbues his roles with an energy and life that is awesome to watch. In Django though, he pulls off a minor miracle. He's able to take that kind of energy and life that has filled his most memorable roles, and throw a veil over it in a way that doesn't necessarily hide it, but just suggests that it's constantly bubbling under the surface. His first scene in the film shows him expressing a degree of distaste for what Calvin Candie is asking him to do that is somewhat shocking, considering what we've seen of Candie and his treatment of and attitude toward slaves has been to that point. It comes to make perfect sense as the film progresses though. Stephen is smarter than Candie, and he's also the most loyal servant that could possibly be found, but that loyalty isn't necessarily to Calvin Candie, it's to Candieland. Stephen has spent his life there and as the head of the house slaves, has invested that life and it's efforts into the order that Candieland is built on. That loyalty makes him indispensable to Calvin Candie, and it also affords him a degree of freedom to speak his mind none of the other slaves in the film are afforded. Jackson plays all of this perfectly. To the rest of the residents at Candieland, seeing Django ride up to "The Big House" on a horse, and finding that he is about to be put in one of the guest rooms of that house threatens the order Stephen is loyal to, meaning that it's really threatening his place in that order, and therefore his life. Jackson takes this character from being a fawning sycophant, to a belligerent bully, to a trusted adviser from second to second depending on which particular situation he is facing. All of them bubble with the kind of kinetic energy he's become famous for while never being over the top. This is at times the most subtle performance he's ever given, and without doubt one of the most memorable characters he's ever played.
This is probably the best cast Tarantino has ever assembled, for the particular film he's made. Even the supporting cast and secondary characters seem to have been given to actors with a specific understanding of what those actors bring to the screen in both capabilities and reputation. There's a sequence in which Don Johnson plays another plantation owner that is absolutely hilarious. Jonah Hill shows up in an extremely small role that adds adding his comedic prowess perfectly. The humor in the film is particularly brilliant, as it takes what is probably the most appropriate perspective on the kind of racism that was required to make slavery work. It suggests it is so stupendously stupid, it should never have been taken seriously enough to have a serious conversation with, much less establish as the basis for an entire economic and social structure. Tarantino finds a great line in understanding that slavery and the racism it was based on were deeply destructive and dehumanizing, but that racists are profoundly stupid and shouldn't be taken very seriously at the same time. He also doesn't shy away from the fact that economics and the profit motive were the driving motive in what made it all acceptable and finally normalized it.
What Tarantino has really done is pull off a minor miracle. He's made a film that is vastly entertaining, and which puts that entertainment front and center. At the same time, the subtext of the film is a well laid out map of the degree to which slavery was inextricable from Southern society prior to the Civil War, without making excuses for anyone. With Django Unchained, he seems to have become The Master Illusionist of his generation. By putting the entertainment aspect of the film front and center, and understanding that there will be controversy about the fact that he does put the entertainment front and center (and the liberal use of the n word), he gets to put out a film that a mass audience is going to see that puts slavery as a main aspect of its central narrative and deals with it in a truthful way. He doesn't have to tangle with the thorny and often stupidly contentious crowd of cynics for whom a "serious" melodrama about slavery is never going to appeal. Whether good or bad, that film, the "serious" drama about slavery, isn't going to appeal to the same mass audience that a Quentin Tarantino revenge movie will, and he knows that. There might not be another director working today who understands the place that cinema occupies in modern culture. And whether or not it was his intention, Tarantino has made the film that could open the door to the kind of "serious" dramatic films about slavery that would have previously been impossible from a social and economic sense. Studios wouldn't have financed them. Now, because Django Unchained is basically guaranteed to be a financial success (it's certainly not going to lose money), the proof is there that the public will pay to see a movie that deals with slavery as a central part of it's narrative. From the audience perspective, those folks who many not have been willing to see a "serious" film about slavery are going to walk away with a new association to films about slavery, mainly that they can be extremely entertaining, and great films.
So the short version of this story is, fuck what you heard, Django Unchained is a great piece of film making from a director who isn't at the top of his game. We're only beginning to see what the top of his game is going to look like.