Django Unchained

Django Unchained

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino's Birth Of A Nation.

Christoph Waltz dazzles with worldly-wise trickery, Jamie Foxx out-foxes John Wayne while forging a brand new Western hero, and Leonardo DiCaprio's diabolical charisma pulls us into the mannered underbelly of a suppressed American past.

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"You cannot spend your life regretting…" the spaghetti western music warns, while blood red titles lasso us into Django Unchained, Tarantino's pioneering epic about a slave turned bounty hunter. The action takes place in 1858, two years antebellum, and we ride into the Texas past with Dr. King Schulz, German dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz as a sharp-witted court jester, highly aware of his transgressions. He purchases the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), though not without first providing some persuasion, from a chain gang, because he can help him identify the dangerous Brittle brothers, then offers Django a partnership in the "flesh for cash business," as he calls it.

Django and Schultz ride through wintry mountain landscapes in their newly acquired shearling coats, passing grazing bison and elk and using snowmen for target practice as they wait on their opportunities to take action.

Django has one objective, and that is to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington in a most demanding role), who was a slave at a German plantation (hence the phonetic and degrading spelling of the name), illegally married Django, and was sold to an unknown destination. We get to witness the birth of a new genre and are confronted with a violent American history that Hollywood fictions have previously not dared to tackle.

Tarantino uses many barbed lures. The movie's comedic exaggerations, and the gallons of spilled red (so clearly not blood as though to illustrate the famous Godard quote) deliver us to serious issues on violence, a half deleted past, the nature of torture and an uncomfortable place where prejudice meets boredom, indifference equals terror and enjoyment of the unspeakable reigns supreme.

Django and Dr. Schultz transform themselves into a touring company of two, becoming the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the wild west in the deep south revealing truths when necessary to survive and functioning as catalysts for each scenario they enter. U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum, played with great astonishment by Tom Wopat, learns a thing or two from the duo of traveling strangers who have disturbed the law and order of the fine townsfolk of Daughtrey, Texas.

Tarantino doesn't stop with parody. He pushes into uncharted territory and reaches an unprecedented emotional depth because he gets truthful performances out of his actors. A scene during which dogs tear apart a man, the horrendous use of a hot box to "punish unruly slaves," and the image of a hammer, ending a match of Mandingo, will stay with me forever. Franco Nero, the original Django, shows up for a cameo and has a tequila. Not as a throwaway, but during a most crucial scene.

Jamie Foxx's Django becomes Siegfried, straight out of the German legend, and his arduous quest to rescue his BrĂĽnhilde out of the "circle of hell fire" eventually leads to Candyland, the notorious plantation ruled over by the devil. Clothes help make the man here, and Django, after a thankfully short lived blue period, looks fetching with his cowboy hat and very chic sunglasses, horseback riding accompanied by Dr. King Schultz onto the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson). After a brief introduction by Dr. King of Tony and Fritz, the respective names of their horses, we learn what kind of "horse trading" Schultz has in mind for this slave owner. Here is where we begin to see what southern hospitality is all about.

Tarantino's western of the south has the Ku Klux Klan led by Big Daddy improvise with bags over their heads, instead of cone-shaped hoods, a pick that makes it difficult for them to see and ride at the same time. Birth of a nation turns into the theater of the absurd, with lynching men, resembling confused children at Halloween, bickering over the quality of their homemade costumes.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who has never been seen this evil before, plays Calvin Candie and steals every scene he is in. The bored, rich, self-satisfied heir to one of the worst cotton plantations in Mississippi, Candie lays bare a cruelty without bounds. His chilling ability to compartmentalise human beings and his intricate system of emotional responses makes him the most convincing villain of the year. The role of Candie's widowed sister (Laura Cayouette) is that of self-conscious decoration, a southern doll, who gets an unforgettable exit.

Samuel L Jackson, supremely disguised, plays Stephen, a.k.a. Snowball, Candie's butler and right-hand man. Their relationship turns out to be much more complicated than it seems at first glance. DiCaprio manages to take this waltz from an outstanding group of actors, hypnotising and casting a malevolent spell that captures the all too real horrors of an American history.

Two visuals encapsulate where Django Unchained stands in questions of race. The first has DiCaprio's monstrous Candie hold a skull in his hands, resembling a pre-civil war Dr. Mengele, who explains racial differences by pointing to "three dimples for servility" in the "area of submissiveness". What we see is a skull, which, with brilliant simplicity, shows how under the skin we all look the same. A bone is a bone is a bone. The second instance shows a group of people, walking in the dark, seen as shadows, the outline of their clothes telling us clearly, by way of crinoline, who is male and who is female, in this Gone With The Wind world. The silhouettes make us colour blind, before Tarantino reveals who walks with whom.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2012
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Django Unchained packshot
Freed to become a bounty hunter's apprentice, a former slave sets out to rescue his wife from a ruthless plantation owner.
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Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L Jackson, Jonah Hill, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Zoe Bell, Bruce Dern

Year: 2012

Runtime: 165 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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