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The D is Silent: Thoughts on the Oscar-Nominated “Django Unchained”

January 16, 2013

By John C.

Django Unchained PosterTwo slave traders ride through the night on horseback, pulling a group of shackled African-American men behind them.  As Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) enters the scene, things quickly turn violent, and he buys the freedom of Django (Jamie Foxx), a tortured man with scars on his back and determination on his face.

This is the unforgettable opening scene of Django Unchained, a stylish and multilayered look at slavery in the Deep South, that takes place two years before the Civil War.  The latest from director Quentin Tarantino, the film opened in theatres back on December 25th and is up for five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Dr. King Schultz is a bounty hunter who kills people for money, and he needs the help of Django to track down a vicious gang of wanted men.  The newly freed slave agrees to be his deputy and they spend the winter selling corpses for cash, but there is also a more personal side to their journey as the tables start to turn throughout the film.  Django needs the help of Dr. Schultz to help him rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is now a prostitute working for a twisted plantation owner by the name of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

This takes us into the second half of Django Unchained, which quickly becomes a revenge fantasy sparked by romantic passion, a mix of genres that almost always works.  Quentin Tarantino directs the film with both style and substance, creating a look that pays homage to the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, while still delivering plenty of scenes that feel like nothing we have ever seen before.  The wildly diverse soundtrack is also consistently excellent in the way that it memorably uses numerous different styles of music, including the awesome new John Legend song “Who Did That to You” and the addictive Rick Ross track “100 Black Coffins,” which both play over integral scenes.

Dr. King Schultz is an intriguing character from the moment we first meet him, a man who uses his righteous hatred for slavery to his advantage as a bounty hunter.  Christoph Waltz received an Oscar nomination and already picked up a Golden Globe for his supporting work, giving a performance as the hero that is every bit as memorable as the villains he usually portrays.  Now I mentioned that the tables start to turn between the two main characters, and this moment comes when we realize there is a moral line that Dr. King Schultz doesn’t want to cross, as Django starts doing everything in his power to rescue his wife.  Jamie Foxx is excellent in the title role, delivering a quietly affective performance in the first part of the film that allows him to grow into a courageous hero by the last act.

Calvin Candie is an enigmatic villain, a character who is completely unsympathetic, yet at the same time we can’t take our eyes off of him.  We never know exactly what makes him so evil, we just know what he’s capable of, and that’s enough to make him a character who is terrifyingly fascinating to watch grow even more despicable with every passing scene.  Leonardo DiCaprio literally commands the screen as the deeply psychopathic villain, delivering a performance that somehow manages to be both underplayed and flamboyantly over the top.  Equally fascinating is his butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who seems to have forgotten his own race in the way that he treats the slaves.

I really admire the excellent performances and the Golden Globe-winning screenplay behind Django Unchained, but I do have to admit that the sometimes disgustingly graphic violence gets so heavy in the last act that it threatens to become a glorification of the disturbing brutality.  As the climactic gun battles go on a little longer then they should, with exploding bodies being used as shields and blood splattering the walls, for some people the messages of the film could unfortunately be drowned in a sea of red.  But in some ways I think that Quentin Tarantino includes the off-putting levels of violence to show the ugliness of it all, the hatred that went into slavery as a whole.

The pointed social commentary is a big part of what makes the film worth seeing, as Quentin Tarantino forces us to put these characters under a microscope and call them out for their actions, in sometimes unexpected ways.  For those who can handle the violence, Django Unchained is an impeccably well crafted and often wildly entertaining film that is worth seeing for the excellent performances and the multilayered screenplay that delves deep into the fascinating characters.

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