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Zimbio Review - 'Django Unchained,' The 'D' is Silent, the Director is Not

(The Weinstein Co)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Hugely funny and beautifully stylized, Django Unchained is trademark Tarantino, his best film since Pulp Fiction.
This is the Quentin Tarantino we know and love.

In Django Unchained, the cocky writer and director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is back and badder than ever. What's always stood out about Tarantino is his brazen ability to borrow and steal while staying original. It's his great gift. With an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and an unabashed conviction about what he loves, Tarantino has shaped his newest film in the mold of '70s spaghetti and revisionist westerns. He's even brought back Sergio Leone's great composer, Ennio Morricone.

Pulp Fiction is Tarantino's postmodern masterpiece, his trademark film. Jackie Brown updated blaxploitation; the Kill Bills were a tribute to wuxia; and Django Unchained is Tarantino's western mix tape. He's continually checking genres off his list. For an artist who's so self-aware of his own place in history and culture, it's amazing he continues to stay so true to himself while crafting his filmography. He does not compromise. There isn't a more self-assured filmmaker in America.

Backed by one of the year's best scripts, Django Unchained is a raw, hilarious slice of antebellum pulp soaked in blood and racism and revenge and blood and love and money and blood and, well, blood. For those put off by the surprising tediousness of Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained marks a return to form for Tarantino. The seminal writer/director's tale of vengeance is a sweaty homage to his favorite westerns from his video clerk days: Mandingo, Once Upon A Time in the West, Navajo Joe, and many others. It's a fantastic fusion of violence and comedy that stays dangerous enough to quicken the pulse.

The writing is the true star of Django. Its dry, rapier wit recalls the work of the Coen brothers, especially True Grit, but that's Tarantino. He refers to other artists while creating his own world, and Django boasts his signature shots, scenes, characters, and language.

Christoph Waltz plays bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist who still travels in a stagecoach with a giant novelty tooth fixed to a spring on the roof. King seeks out a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), freeing him from his filthy owners in exchange for his help finding the Brittle brothers, whom Django can identify. One thing: Django needs to find his one true love, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who's owned by the most vicious slave master in the south, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz agrees to help when he learns her real name is Brunhilde and was taught German, his native tongue. They set off on a mission of revenge from Tennessee to Mississippi, leaving dead bodies all over Dixieland.

Once together, King and Django ride into a dirty town and drink at a saloon. The opening scene, where King "negotiates" Django's release is fairly straightforward. The saloon sequence is heavily stylized, funny, and it sets the rhythm for the rest of the film. Tarantino crash zooms to the details. King serves the beers himself and the camera cuts to close-ups of the pour and the head scraper, a tongue depressor-like tool of the era. Soon, it's clear King is in town to kill the Sheriff and collect the bounty. He does this in the middle of the street and, slowly, everyone gravitates towards the commotion. Tarantino frames the townsfolk, around 50 of them, behind Schultz as he does the deed. They do not move. Finally, a woman faints. It's the director's gleeful punchline to a joke only he gets. It's fantastic stuff.

Tarantino borrows the operatic title theme of Sergio Corbucci's 1966 western, Django (Its star, Franco Nero, has a cameo). He sets King and Django in silhouette against the failing sun as they ride along, an homage to the opening credits of A Fistful of Dollars. There are so many reference points in Django Unchained, it's dizzying and thrilling keeping track of them all. Tarantino's 1800s America is deeply stylized but never inauthentic. The sets, props, and every ounce of the art direction feel correct. Even the costumes set the comical tone of the film. Early on, the KKK gather, but can't get it together because nobody can see out of the eye holes of their hoods.

Waltz and DiCaprio stand out amongst the cast, but Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as Candie's elderly "Uncle Tom" plantation lifer, Steven. Wide-eyed and incredulous when he sees Django on a horse, Steven can't comprehend a free black man. Jackson's motormouth and facial expressions are funny on the surface, but Steven is the devil incarnate, a traitor to his race and even more evil than his master. Jackson and DiCaprio play off one another beautifully, forming a kind of two-headed monster that becomes entirely fearsome once they figure out who Broomhilda is and that King and Django are playing them. For his part, Waltz is typically fantastic as Tarantino's reinvention of Doc Holliday (also a dentist). He's a sociopath of a different sort, reveling in his murderous work, but for good. He's the film's anti-hero, a perfect compliment to Django, who's entirely noble.

The genius of the script is how vivid each character is sketched. "Amongst your inventory, I've been led to believe, is a specimen I'm keen to acquire." Waltz's Schultz is the intellectual of Django Unchained and Tarantino gives him the tools to create a sharp, but menacing character not unlike his Oscar-winning turn as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. Foxx brings Django down to Earth with a quiet ferocity that makes him a perfect hero. He doesn't say much, but when he does, it's memorable. He's given the film's running joke, "The name's Django... The 'D' is silent." And, the film's best one-liner: "I like the way you die, boy."

What's important to remember is this is Tarantino's version of history. Like Inglorious Basterds, he's rewriting everything as he goes along. Django is crazily over-the-top in every way, and, although some of the harsh racist language and violence is cringe-worthy, it's supposed to be. If seeing an actor like DiCaprio (playing his first villain) refereeing a fight to the death between two of his slaves makes you squirm in your seat, well, Tarantino's done his job. He's a lunatic at the control switch, pushing all the right buttons, including ours. The result is the most jam-packed, fun, and enjoyable 165 minutes you're going to experience this year.

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