Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 165 min.
4/5*

I realize you are here to read about Django Unchained, but let me set the scene for a moment...

A few years ago in 2009 Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, an ultra-violent, historical fiction, revenge film in which an oppressed minority fights back and gets... well... revenge on their oppressors.  We cheered them on and enjoyed scenes in which these terrible oppressors finally get what's been coming to them.  We know, obviously, this didn't happen, it would have drastically altered history if it had been true, but it was satisfying nonetheless.  It makes us consider the idea of "righteous vengeance," that we may accept in film, but rarely in real life.

There are things that happen in the film that would normally disgust us, and yet because we know the terrible context these things turn into comedy for us. We accept all the ultra-bloody, ultra-violent scenes because we think that these people "deserve" what is happening to them.  And ultimately the film hinges on our acceptance of these things in order for it to work, and of course it does work because of the scenes that have preceded, and the things that we know about the true historical context heading into the film, we almost want these things to happen.

Flash forward to 2012 and we have the release of Django Unchained.  The description of Inglourious Basterds in the first paragraph can be used to describe this film as well.  It's Tarantino's second venture into the idea of "righteous vengeance."  I would hesitate to compare these two films so closely, but they are so close in what they are about it's almost impossible to mention one without talking about the other.  When rating it, you can't help but compare the two and try to decide which one you like better (which I'll talk about later).  When you look at its subject and style it's almost the same movie, just in a different setting.  Basterds was very reminiscent of the beloved spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and now with Django Unchained he has decided to go all out and just make a western for himself.  The opening credits could have been ripped straight from one of the spaghetti westerns (especially the font style).  This is where I should mention that, while I'm not a big Tarantino fan, I do appreciate Tarantino's style and obvious love of film history that so clearly inspires his work.

THE STORY (spoiler warning):
In Django Unchained, German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), frees a slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) because he knows he can help him find his next targets.  They seem to work so well as a team that they decide to continue working as partners.  Over time they get to know one another better and Schultz becomes sympathetic to Django's story of how he became separated from his wife. Schultz quickly decides to help him find his wife, free her, and take revenge on those who have mistreated them.


Django's wife is a slave belonging to a wealthy plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  They plan to go buy her, get her to safety, and it seems as though vengeance is somewhat of an afterthought, however we know it must come to that. It WILL come to that.


You may think that Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Calvin Candie, is the primary villain in this story, but (SPOILERS) he isn't.  In case you forgot, Samuel L. Jackson is in this film, and it turns out he is the main villain.  He is Stephen, a man who could very well have been a slave just like anyone else, but because, he has in a sense, sold his soul to the devil, and turned his back on all the other slaves in order to find favor with his masters, he has become a black slaver himself.  Django mentions in the film that this is the worst type of person imaginable, and certainly he is a frightening person.

Stephen is the one whispering in Calvin's ear and leading him along to do the things he wants him to. He is the one overseeing things like a watchful security guard who is able to sniff out Django and Schultz's deception.  In fact, even once Calvin is gone, the situation is far from over. In the absence of Calvin, Stephen is in charge. He is clearly the smartest and most devious of all the people left at the plantation, so there is now no longer any question who is the primary villain.
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As with Inglourious Basterds, words play such an important role in Django Unchained, and there are some great, intense scenes in which the dialogue and situation keeps us the edge of our seat.  In that respect it is absolutely justified that Tarantino won the Academy Award for best original screenplay.  However none quite match the intensity of several of the scenes found in Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino has a knack for writing brilliant dialogue and constructing scenes that on the outset are very simple and yet through his brilliant dialogue and masterful performances by his actors, these moments transform into nail-bitingly tense scenes. He takes his time in these scenes and draws out the tension to the breaking point.  Think of the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds in which Christoph Waltz's character Hans Landa through simple, even friendly sounding dialogue, questions a French dairy farmer about whether he knows the location of a group of hiding jews or not. It is one of the most (if not the most) brilliant and intense scenes I've ever seen.

There is a playfulness in these two films. Both feature scenes in which characters have to act, playing different characters in certain situations, and things rarely turn out well for the actors.  They are always found out, and always pushed to the breaking point until guns begin blazing.

And for me here in lies the problem with Django Unchained. Much more so than in Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained turns into just another revenge film in which the hero goes into the bad guy's territory guns blazing shooting all the baddies with deadly accuracy while spending fairly lengthy amounts of time in the open and yet none of the baddies are capable of hitting him because they apparently rarely practice using their weapons.  And of course the massacre ends with the hero walking away from a giant flame left over from a sizable explosion.  Certainly Django is better than the average revenge film because there is much more substance to this film, yet I can't help wishing that this film had taken a different route from so many other films.
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There is one thing that separates Djano Unchained from Inglourious Basterds, and that is that in Django we see the horrors of slavery and it reminds us of how terrible it was and that makes us sympathize with Django and his quest for vengeance even more, and we never got that from Inglourious Basterds.  Basterds assumed we remembered the holocaust so well that we didn't need anything more to sympathize with the Basterds and their quest for vengeance.

To be honest I'm not sure we needed scenes of torture in Basterds to remind us of why we want to see the Nazi's die.  Those scenes make sense in Django, especially since we needed to establish a tough skin on the character Django was playing to fool Calvin, and of course we needed to see what had happened to Djano's wife.  However, I don't really think Basterds needed any torture scenes to work.

This is meant to be Django's film, but he is somewhat lost among the other great performances by Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson.  He gives a somewhat subtle performance, which does make him pretty likable, but sadly Foxx is mostly overshadowed by the others.

Christoph Waltz was deserving of the best supporting actor award he won at the Oscars, but he was even better in Inglourious Basterds. He is playing a fairly similar character, just a good guy version, rather than a villain.

The sad part is that the worst part of this film is the appearance of Tarantino himself.  He likes to put himself into his films, but in this case he tried on a very false accent and it's pretty bad.  His poor performance is even harder to watch because it comes in a film that has such great performances from the other actors.  A poor or even average actor only looks worse when in a film surrounded by great actors.

Which is better?
I think both are good films. I think that because the context of slavery and it's despicable scenes of mistreatment and torture, the vengeance in this film seems all the more righteous, but I couldn't help feeling that Basterds was more fun to watch, while Django is approached in a slightly more serious manner.  However, the tense scenes that we remember Basterds for are better and more intense than the ones that we'll remember Django for.

I'll go ahead and say I still like Inglourious Basterds better, but I think both are good films worth watching, and perhaps a more in depth look at the differences and similarities could make for an interesting discussion at some point.