Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie.

Django Unchained (2012) Review

Quentin Tarantino is a uniquely gifted filmmaker who has made an indelible mark on our pop cultural landscape. A massively popular entertainer and an ever-maturing artist, he has provoked almost as much controversy as he has rapturous acclaim, and the reaction to Django Unchained is no different. In this case, however,he has quite possibly produced the greatest film of his career: a masterful catharsis against unspeakable horrors delivered with provocative humor, unflinching brutality, and an eloquent grace amidst his characteristic brazen flair.

Jaime Foxx is the titular Django, a slave who was branded and sold to separate him from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) in punishment for attempting to run away. He is freed by “a fortuitous turn of events” that unites the skills of German bounty hunter King Schultz (a phenomenal Christoph Waltz) with Django’s knowledge of Schultz’s targets. Together, the two become an unstoppable whirlwind of gunslinging bravura, linguistic finesse, and deftly applied paperwork. They embark on a mythic quest to liberate Broomhilda from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ever-hospital plantation owner and sociopathic butcher of men, and his despicable head slave Stephen, played with stomach-churning brilliance by Samuel L. Jackson.

This film is an incredible blend of disparate elements. It is an expert homage riddled with references to obscure Spaghetti Westerns of the sixties and seventies, yet lovingly embraces African American music, mixing soul and hip hop in an 1860s period piece with startling and refreshing effectiveness. It is a master class on acting and an action choreography showcase that puts every CGI-heavy blockbuster that came out this year to shame, yet it also boasts lengthy conversation scenes that sustain more unbearable tension in ten minutes than The Hobbit could muster in three hours. It’s a raging river of blood, yet the most gruesome violence happens off screen in the imagination of the audience. It’s a film that has come the closest to accurately portraying the physical horror that was American slavery, yet seamlessly indulges in side-splitting absurdity and feel-good revisionism.

This film is far from the anti-white rabble-rouser some critics have judged it to be; rather, its moral landscape is exceptionally nuanced. Yes, it is inundated with repugnant white characters, but it also has a white man who proves to be the voice of moral enlightenment –– and he happens to be German, which is a nice choice given that this film followed Inglorious Basterds. And while it would have been easy to portray all slaves as suffering paragons of virtue and innocence, Tarantino did the much tougher thing: he showed us the black accomplices, too. He takes care to point out that humanity is complicit in evil regardless of color, creed, or gender, and that we are all equally capable of resisting it. The fact that he manages to do this without taking away from the satisfaction of cultural revenge is nothing short of extraordinary.

Of course, Tarantino is incapable of making a film without stepping on people’s toes. No doubt Django will offend people on all sides of the socio-political spectrum. The portrayal of white southerners is unkind, to put it mildly, and the triple digit instances of the n-bomb will undoubtedly ruffle feathers. The violence is not for the faint of heart, and the sense of humor will not sit well with those who think humor is inappropriate to the subject matter. And there’s the matter of its length: clocking in at a little under three hours, if any of the above issues will rub you the wrong way, the experience will become intolerably drawn-out.

Overall, though, there hasn’t been an American film all year that has provoked as much intelligent discussion and visceral reaction as Django Unchained. It is an unforgettable experience that succeeds in delivering thrills as unrestrained as the title would suggest. It is too early to tell if it will be held in as high regard as Tarantino’s seminal Pulp Fiction, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.