Saturday, February 16, 2013

Django Unchained: Spaghetti Americain

Django Unchained opened almost two months ago, but Audrey and I only got a chance to see it last night, and it is another gem from Quentin Tarantino.

It is not a film for the faint hearted: the word 'nigger' can be heard over 110 times according to iMDB, and the bloodshed, while hardly constant, is nothing short of prodigious. For those who care, it is also rife with historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (set in 1858, pistols use metal cartridges, sunglasses appear decades early, and music is played long before it was ever published), but as has been said, Tarantino is a man who makes movies about movies, so some license must be given in pursuit of the Western Cinema ideal.

But for a movie crafted around slavery and vengeance, especially a Tarantino movie, there are surprising amounts of warmth and compassion, and you can also take it as a given that his trademark dialogue and humor will be on hand. Don Johnson does a splendid turn as southern plantation owner Big Daddy which oscillates between menacing and comedic, and original Django actor Franco Nero also has a brief cameo.

Most of the compassion comes from the brilliant Christoph Walz as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Freeing Jamie Foxx's Django in so he can identify his now-wanted former overseers, he explains how he personally finds slavery abhorrent, and offers Django his freedom in exchange for his help.

While having a white character named Dr. King liberate and uplift a black man might seem like pandering to some, Walz plays his German-immigrant bounty hunter as an insightful, articulate and principled man, especially compared to the 'bounty killers' of the spaghetti westerns that inspired Django Unchained. Eventually the relationship grows into a partnership, which plays out against a stunningly shot backdrop of Wyoming in winter.

When Schulz learns Django's intention to return to the slave market where he was sold in order to find his wife, the incongruously named Broomhilda von Shaft, he likens Django to the Teutonic hero Siegfried, and offers his assistance, which brings them into direct conflict with plantation owner Calvin Candie. Candie is played with palpable menace by the often under-appreciated Leonardo Dicaprio, and his major-domo Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), and the complex relationship between the two is one of the most intriguing in the movie.

At two hours and forty five minutes, I felt the movie could be a little leaner, especially one of the larger gun battles, but again, if you are doing an homage to directors like Sergio Leone, you aren't going to do it without a certain degree of languidity. Nothing felt like it dragged, the soundtrack is diverse and eclectic, ranging from Ennio Morricone to the RZA, and some of the vistas are spectacularly photographed, so as a viewer you ever feel abandoned.

A recent mock poster referred to Django Unchained as "Inglorious Basterds: Slavery Edition", and while there is some resonance in that comparison, fans of westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, as well as Tarantino's skewed but insightful perspective on race relations are bound to be entertained by Django Unchained.

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