There are movies you love to hate and movies you hate to love. Django Unchained falls into the latter category. I wish I could loathe this ultraviolent movie where racism in the South just prior to the Civil War is its unrelenting focus. The guilty truth is I loved pretty much everything about this movie, but I particularly loved Christoph Waltz as King Shultz, the German immigrant who befriends the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), unleashes him as a companion bounty hunter and finally helps him rescue his wife from plantation and slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). King Shultz is truly one of the most interesting characters to be seen in the cinema in years, more interesting than Mattie Ross in True Grit. Yeah, that interesting. It’s too bad that King Shultz gets killed off in this movie. He deserved a whole series of movies, hell, a television series featuring the adventures of King Shultz, bounty hunter.
This is not to take away from Jamie Foxx’s undeniably great job as Django. Django and Shultz make quite a pair, and despite the stomach wrenching violence that permeates yet another violence-filled Quentin Tarantino movie, you so enjoy the ride. To my knowledge this is the first movie where retribution against racism is at its core. It’s horrific to watch, but a guilty pleasure nonetheless when unfeeling monsters like Calvin Candie gets his just rewards.
Still, this is Quentin Tarantino, so you know what that means. Yes, lots of excessive violence, and it will be a movie filled with themes about larger social issues. In Inglourious Basterds, we got to see (among other things) an American Jewish soldier behind enemy lines in World War Two torturing Nazis. We get the same theme here, when Django finally gets a chance to wreak vengeance on Candie and the many white-boy racists that keep his plantation and slave holding active. It’s poetic, almost inspiring violence. It is also over the top violence, so bloody that it becomes cartoonish. Granted I haven’t been to war and I haven’t seen what happens in actual combat. Particularly given the firearm technology just prior to the start of the Civil War, shooting up people could not possibly involve so much blood spattering as occurs in this movie. It’s like the scenes out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
As a guy who abhors violence and violent movies, I somehow sat through this grisly movie and enjoyed the whole experience. I have read enough about Jim Crow laws and plantation life to know that the Candie plantation is not that removed from reality. His surreal indifference to the humanity of his slaves makes DiCaprio’s performance memorable, sickening and, yes, wholly fascinating. You wonder how it is possible that anyone can be so clueless and out of touch, but then again there are all sorts of surreal types out there, like, say crackpot rural police chief Mark Kessler. The difference between now and then is that, with some prominent exceptions like the Koch Brothers, they don’t tend to wield power and influence like Calvin Candie.
Anyhow, Tarantino has found his niche as a director, and it’s a comfortable niche that he will probably inhabit for the rest of his career. It involves violence, controversy, memorable characters, rectifying injustice and examining the extremes of humanity. It’s a controversial but fascinating niche, making most of his films worthy of seeing in spite of the pervasive violence. Django Unchained may be his most memorable movie since his monster hit Pulp Fiction in 1994.
This is really good/bad stuff but certainly not for the squeamish. It is actually a pretty good way to appreciate just how insular and crazy the segregated South used to be and in many ways still is. It should rankle the heart of any true redneck, make liberals like me feel guilty for enjoying it and it qualifies as fascinating, albeit extremely violent entertainment. And, of course, there will always be Christoph Waltz’s performance as King Shultz, for which he deservedly won as Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Waltz. He also won it in 2010 for his performance as the memorable Col. Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Good stuff! 3.5 out of four stars.