Friday, January 11, 2013

'Django' provides audacious mix of drama, action

The ever audacious Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "Django Unchained," is perhaps his most controversial. It is an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the form of a spaghetti Western featuring a vengeful freed slave getting bloody, bullet-laden retribution.

As was also true of Tarantino's previous film "Inglourious Basterds," a revisionist take on how World War II ended, "Django" is a revenge fantasy blended with historical fiction.

The titular character (Jamie Foxx) is a slave bought in the opening scenes of the film by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, who needs Django to identify a trio of men he is pursuing. Schultz promises Django his freedom and a cut of the bounty once these men are found.

Schultz discovers that Django has a wife (Kerry Washington) he wants to reunite with. Feeling obligated to help this man he's freed, Schultz agrees that after a winter together as a bounty hunting team, he will help Django rescue his wife from the particularly deplorable slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino doesn't shy away for the ugliness of the era. The N-word is used quite freely throughout the film. There is brutal violence against slaves including fights to the death for sport. While this is often a rich film full of the precise character details, clever dialogue and outlandish plot developments that Tarantino is known for, it is also not an easy film to watch. It is not for the squeamish.

The film's more difficult elements to watch are made palatable by the exceptional acting from everyone. Once again, as he did in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz steals the show. Following his Oscar-winning turn in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz was typecasted as villain, so it is wonderful to see him use his considerable talents for a character we can simply love to love rather than love to hate. Waltz is an actor perfectly suited for Tarantino's intelligent, wit filled, eloquent monologues. He delivers them with humor, warmth and, when necessary, menace.

Foxx makes a compelling lead. Obviously, he has the most complete story arc of the film going from an uneducated slave to a sophisticated, smooth talking, gun-totting Western hero (or in this case Southern hero). Foxx keeps the performance grounded in a place that is real. He plays his anger at a controlled simmer that is effective.

DiCaprio, who doesn't appear until an hour into the film, seems to be relishing playing a villain. Tarantino has written a truly despicable character. Playing a character this unlikable is freeing, and DiCaprio clearly enjoys the freedom to be truly detestable.

Samuel L. Jackson gets a juicy role as Candie's head house slave. Jackson at first seems to be playing a stereotypical Uncle Tom, but slowly Jackson and Tarantino turn the cliche on its head. It is a subtle and focused performance that is among Jackson's best.

As has been true of Tarantino's film's since "Kill Bill," the tone of "Django" is often wildly all over the place. The film features a little bit of everything: affecting drama, intense suspense, over-the-top action, understated wit and slapstick. Not all of this sits together perfectly.

"Django" is made as an homage to spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films. Combining these elements with a stark presentation of the pre-Civil War South creates some surprisingly powerful and even moving moments.

Unfortunately, Tarantino's tribute, at times, turns into outright parody. There's a scene involving the KKK that plays like a Monty Python sketch that is equal parts funny and uncomfortable. It isn't a bad scene, but it feels extraneous and like something that would be more interesting to watch as a deleted scene.

Similarly, toward the end of the film there are moments that are played very broadly. These frankly silly moments get cheap laughs that do a disservice to the rest of the film although certainly don't go as far as to ruin the overall experience.

Much like Peter Jackson with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Tarantino is a director who puts all his ideas, both good and bad, on the screen. In both cases, it makes for films that could be improved with some tighter editing. At least with Tarantino's film though you can say it is never boring. Tarantino's choice are, at times, questionable, but certainly not boring.

"Django," even with its flaws, is an exhilarating film-going experience. Tarantino's throw-everything-in approach is both a handicap and an asset because it makes his film unruly and unpredictable. Where most filmmakers play it safe, Tarantino takes risks. Sometimes these risks don't work, but it is always a blast to see him take those chances.

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