Never boring, 'Django' is a raw, ragged gem

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio share the screen in "Django Unchained." BY THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY'S THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY'S
January 4, 2013

Cinematic chemist Quentin Tarantino has once again played with the Genre Periodic Table, using the base element of Sw (Spaghetti Western) and pouring in a beaker of Bx (Blaxploitation), before stirring it with a droplet of Ro (Romance) to create his latest masterwork, “Django Unchained.”

Just as everything else the filmmaker has attempted in the past decade (a two-part kung fu epic, a Nazi revenge thriller), “Django” is a film that, if attempted by a filmmaker of lesser skill, would be crassly unwatchable at worst and mild and toothless at best.

Instead, he has created yet another utterly unique, bold and brash vision by paying loving, encyclopedic homage to the films that served as inspiration. As a true film junkie, I find it a thrill to behold Tarantino at the top of his game (as he is here), for it is obvious the man truly loves movies - and not just the snotty arthouse-and-awards variety, but every dark little corner that exists within the industry.

Snagging its title (and title character) from an old, long-forgotten Italian oater, “Django” blasts open in 1858 with an unnerving scene of slaves being marched through hazardous terrain by a scurvy pair of traders. The scene is interrupted by a traveling German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (played by the amazing Christoph Waltz). He pierces the somber procession with levity: he’s all smiles, impeccable vocabulary and at the reins of a ridiculous wagon with a bouncing tooth atop it.

Schultz is searching for a particular slave, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), who may help him identify a band of outlaw siblings going by the name of the Brittle Brothers. When the traders refuse to let Django go, things go sour rather quickly. Schultz actually moonlights as a bounty hunter and quickly takes Django under his wing, and the two set out across the South to collect various payoffs and exact revenge along the way.

Django reveals to Schultz that he left behind a wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (played by Kerry Washington), who is now forced to work for a third-generation slave owner by the name of Calvin Candie (played by deliciously slimy Leonardo DiCaprio), who owns the ironically named plantation Candyland.

As with any Tarantino film, there are a number of ancillary players in its runtime: Samuel L. Jackson as the head house slave, Walter Goggins as an antagonistic henchman to Calvin, Don Johnson as plantation owner Big Daddy. Also as with any Tarantino film, “Django” is crammed with profanities, bursting with dark humor and caked in blood.

And while some may be put off by the frequent bursts of grue and gore, Tarantino wields his pen just as mightily as his sword, as “Django” contains scenes that are profoundly literate (a campfire scene in which Schultz explains the origins of Django’s wife’s name echoes Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which Django is witnessing true freedom for the first time).

The performances are universally solid, with Waltz easily deserving another Oscar nod for his enthusiastic take on a rather complicated-but-compassionate character. While I have never been a big a fan of Jamie Foxx as Foxx himself seems to be, his Django is as sound and righteous as needed here.

It must also be noted that the prickly subject matter is handled in a way that does not feel as though it’s the subject (like “Amistad” or “Rosewood”), and is perhaps even more brutal and nakedly honest because of it. It’s not aiming for overly earnest award nominations in a self-congratulatory way, so it revels in the sheer bloody insanity of America at its worst, making it more in-your-face and resonant.

Speaking of resonant, the spirits of countless exploitation flicks float through the picture, including the original “Django” himself, Franco Nero. There are numerous nods, winks and nudges to ghosts of B-movies past, as well as some from Tarantino’s own oeuvre. But even if you don’t possess a passion for such films, the flick is steeped in wit, visual flair and thunderous action throughout.

At nearly three hours, the film can feel slightly unwieldy at times, but it is never boring. In fact, its shaggy structure often works in its favor, for “Django” is as raw and ragged as anything you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie.

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