Let’s take a moment to remember Sally Menke.
Before tragically dying of an apparent heat stroke in September of 2010, Menke had been the loyal editor and #1 collaborator of Quentin Tarantino. The auteur’s films have been lauded for many reasons, not the least of which is his singular ability to wring incredible drama and tension from a simple scene of two people talking. Tarantino’s remarkable skill at screenwriting and his deft hand at casting and directing surely play a part in that, but so much of it came from Menke’s involvement as well. She had a unique skill at pacing scenes, not to mention a superb touch at choosing exactly which shot to show and when. I’d say that touch was a vital factor in determining Tarantino’s style as a filmmaker. The man owes a great deal of his success to Sally Menke, and I think he’d be the first one to admit it.
There was never any doubt that Tarantino would continue making films without Menke (honestly, I don’t think Tarantino is physically capable of retiring), but it took a long time for him to choose another editor. He eventually settled on Fred Raskin, who worked his way up as an assistant editor for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson. He finally worked as an assistant editor for both parts of Kill Bill before getting the top editing job on the last three “The Fast and the Furious” movies.
I mention this up front because it would have been the elephant in the theater for any film geek who went to see Django Unchained. Yes, Robert Richardson had come back on as DOP (he had previously collaborated with Tarantino on Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds), but there was always the question of how Tarantino would manage on his first picture without Menke’s reliable hand. Though I wouldn’t necessarily say the film is any better or worse for the change in management, there’s no denying that something feels different about it.
To be clear, Tarantino’s flair for dialogue is still perfectly intact, and a lot of the exchanges between characters do hold a degree of tension. Still, none of these scenes reach the level of, say, Sam Jackson’s scene with Tim Roth at the climax of Pulp Fiction. Or the Bride/Bill scenes in Kill Bill Pt. 2. Or pretty much any scene from Inglourious Basterds. Compared to those other films, there’s some intangible thing about this one that feels strangely different.
The examples given were all rather slow and deliberately paced, leaving us hanging with anticipation for the awkward moment to pass or for the other shoe to drop. I couldn’t really point to any particular scene in this movie that left me feeling in such a way. Then again, it’s worth noting that the camerawork in this film is very energetic, complete with zoom-ins so fast that they make an audible “whoosh.” Of all the adjectives to describe this film, “slow” is not among them.
It should hardly come as a surprise that this movie has a thin veneer of artificiality. Indeed, the film is an eclectic mix of modern music and obscure pop culture references, all blended together into a coherent film that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. As only Quentin Tarantino could deliver.
The opening title card makes a big deal in telling us that this story takes place only two years before the Civil War. The scene is set someplace in Texas, where Django (Jamie Foxx) is travelling with so many other slaves who’ve just been auctioned off in Mississippi. The caravan is intercepted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter looking for three murderers whose faces are known only to Django.
Schultz “purchases” Django, trading the slave his freedom for his assistance in tracking down killers. Their partnership is so mutually beneficial that Schultz agrees to help track down and free Django’s wife. Broomhilda (also known as “Hilde,” played by Kerry Washington) and Django were previously separated after they tried running away, you see. It turns out that Hilde was sold to a high roller named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), which means that Schultz and Django have to somehow trick Candie into selling her to them.
To start with, the trailers should already have made it abundantly clear that this is a gruesome movie. This film is all about a black slave who has the chance to violently kill those who own and abuse black slaves. It makes for a nice companion piece with Inglourious Basterds, which is all about Jews who violently kill Nazis instead of the other way around. The difference, however, is that Basterds never went into great detail about the Holocaust. Aside from the one family hiding in a basement during the prologue, we never see how Jews in Europe were affected by the Third Reich, much less all the death and degradation at the concentration camps.
This movie, however, takes the exact opposite approach. We see slaves in chains. We see them whipped and branded and subjected to all manner of torture. We literally see slaves beat each other to death for the enjoyment of their white owners. In my opinion, this was the better way to go. For one thing, such grotesque scenes serve as a nice primer for when comeuppance arrives and the blood really gets flowing. More importantly, all of the main characters either witness or are subjected to this treatment as the film continues. Their reactions to such inhumanity tell us a lot about them.
Take Calvin Candie, for example. I found this character utterly fascinating because even though he’s technically the villain, he isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Sure, he’s a spoiled and greedy popinjay, but that doesn’t exactly make him evil. It’s true that he’s a total racist and slaves are murdered by his command, but he’s one of the few characters who’s merely apathetic — as opposed to sadistic — about the fact. The man is a true Southern gentleman, and he’d gladly hold his racist tongue if honor or business compelled him to do so.
Most importantly, Candie is never technically in the wrong at any point in this movie. Going strictly by standards of the time, none of his actions are remotely illegal or immoral. In fact, it always seems to be Schultz and Django committing crimes against Candie, instead of the opposite.
To be clear, I don’t mean to argue that Candie isn’t a villain. He absolutely is. I mean to argue that the only reason he’s a villain is because he’s standing on the wrong side of history. If this story was told by a man from the antebellum Confederacy, Candie might easily have been made the hero of the piece with very few modifications. This gives the film a kind of inverted morality that I found quite fascinating.
A final note on Candie: His sister — Lara Lee Candy-Fitzwilly, played by Laura Cayouette — appears in this movie as a minor supporting character. Though the film never explicitly says as much, the two siblings are so affectionate toward each other that I’m led to believe they’re fucking. After all, Candie is the living personification of every notorious practice that was acceptable in the antebellum South and considered repugnant everywhere else. Incest would certainly fall under that heading.
Anyway, the film has no shortage of characters to hate. The film is overflowing with one-dimensional white supremacist douchebags for Django to kill blaxploitation-style. They’re played by such veteran character actors as Don Johnson, James Russo, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, and Franco Nero (the original Django himself!). Jonah Hill also makes a brief appearance as a white supremacist, taking part in a hilarious KKK parody. Yet another racist scumbag is played by Quentin Tarantino himself (who naturally gets killed in spectacular fashion).
Still, out of all these truly despicable characters, I think the worst of them went to Samuel L. Jackson. He plays Stephen, an old slave who’s been serving the Candie clan for all of his 75 years. Stephen is the worst kind of slave in that he knows he’s a slave and proud of the fact. The guy is so smart and so perfectly situated that he might easily kill Candie in his sleep and set all the slaves free, yet he would defend the Candyland plantation to his dying breath. Stephen isn’t just dependent on the system, he’s actively trying to preserve it. Stephen isn’t just a product of his time, because that would imply that he’s grown apathetic or tolerant of cruelty toward his people. No, Stephen actually seems to enjoy watching his own people get tortured and killed.
To be entirely honest, I couldn’t help wincing at the sight of Samuel L. Jackson playing such an unrepentant Uncle Tom. I had a hard time believing that such an actor would debase himself in such a way. But then I remembered that this is the same man with 148 credits on IMDB, one of which involved dressing up like a Nazi for Frank Miller. Meet his quote and Sam Jackson will do anything on stage or film.
Moving on, let’s talk about our heroes. Christoph Waltz essentially plays Dr. Schultz as Hans Landa 2.0. The enormous pipe has been traded in for a silly cart drawn by a horse that bows on command, but that’s about it. Of course, that’s hardly a bad thing. Everything that made Landa such an outstanding villain is exactly what makes Schultz such an outstanding anti-hero. They’re both amoral killers who hunt purely for fun and profit, they’re both impossibly charming in an imperturbable kind of way, and they can both talk themselves out of any situation precisely because they’re always the smartest person in the room.
Best of all, both characters are German. In Basterds, that made Landa part of the establishment and therefore a more effective villain. In this movie, that makes him an outsider with absolutely no attachment to American slavery practices, and therefore an effective partner/benefactor for a slave.
Then there’s Django himself, played superbly well by Jamie Foxx. I was very fond of how Django was portrayed as a product of his time, illiterate and poorly educated with almost no knowledge of civilized life. That isn’t to say he’s stupid, however. Indeed, we see on multiple occasions that Django is wicked smart. No, Django is simply ignorant. So many years of indentured servitude have limited his knowledge and suppressed his defiant spark. The process of learning to break those limitations and to grow as a free man serves as the core of his development arc, and Foxx portrays it beautifully.
Still, I’d argue that Kerry Washington is the unsung hero of the picture. On her own merit, Broomhilda is a terribly weak character who might’ve been swapped out for some prized inanimate object without any effect on the plot. Yet Washington has such a compelling screen presence that every moment of her brief screen time is charged with emotion. Of course, I’m sure it helped that Washington and Foxx had proven onscreen chemistry, having starred together in Ray. The point being that Washington took a crappy character and turned her into a woman worth caring about. That’s a difficult task and she should be applauded for pulling it off.
All told, I gladly recommend Django Unchained. Not only is the film blessed with a sterling screenplay and outstanding performances from all involved, but it’s just plain fun. Then again, I’ll admit that your mileage on “fun” may vary, depending on your stomach for blood and your patience for Tarantino’s quirky sense of humor. There’s also the matter of how this movie portrays antebellum slave practices, but to ignore that or to label it as exploitative trash would be to miss the film’s point entirely. Indeed, I applaud Tarantino for tackling the subject with such balls.
Though I’d still argue that Inglourious Basterds is the better film, this one is a damn good movie all the same.