Django Unchained (2012)
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
When Quentin Tarantino is at his best, he has enormous fun making movies. Every plot element, line of dialogue, visual effect, splatter of blood, soundtrack tune, camera angle, jump cut, and title screen primarily serves the purpose of being fun, and when a mind as creative and untethered as Tarantino’s is set first on having fun, how does a lover of film also not have fun watching him do his thing?
I was worried that Tarantino was going to continue down a path he started with Inglourious Basterds, a decorated film that, for all its final-act silliness, manages still to take itself too seriously and forget how to have fun. There are a few moments in Django Unchained that teeter in that direction, when Tarantino seems to be trying to remind us, unnecessarily, of the evils of slavery, but he quickly jerks us back with an unexpected modern pop song in the soundtrack, or an enormous, side-scrolling title that stretches the entire height of the screen. Such hyper-stylistic decisions can be a distraction if one is intent on staying within the film, but this is the wrong approach: to enjoy a Tarantino movie, one must stay within the film-making, not the film itself. Self-awareness is the rule, not the violation.
In his best movie since Jackie Brown, Tarantino gives us Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who requires Django’s assistance. The duo brings in several bounties on its way to freeing Django’s wife, a slave owned by Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin J. Candie. Schultz walks through deadly situations with the calm assurance of someone who knows more than anyone else on the screen, like a video-game player who’s already played this level fifty times and is in a hurry to get to the hard part. I have not liked Waltz in anything he’s been in, but I like him very much in Django. Perhaps he is better suited to being the good guy than the bad. Foxx is an excellent combination of Sweet Sweetback and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, charismatic and cool.
In his earlier films, Tarantino was more inclined to show the action leading up to the violent act and then that act’s messy results. Despite what you remember about the grisly Michael Madsen “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene in Reservoir Dogs, we are never actually shown the violent act. That framework is largely abandoned in this new movie, where we are treated to a couple of disturbing scenes. For all his focus on having fun, there is definitely a serious theme here about slavery-related issues we might not have been familiar with. And because he has often been criticized for the blood and violence in his movies, I suspect there’s an even larger exploration here on the topic of violence in film.
However, to lose oneself in topics and themes is to miss Django Unchained‘s best gift. It is three hours of joyous film-making, a return to form for a director who makes me laugh not merely by being witty or clever, but by reminding me of how much fun movies can be.