We’re still in this final era of Cinematic Century where I’m forced to confront the unstoppable march of time, looking at lists of movies that I swear I saw in theaters just a couple years ago, but which were almost a solid decade old. It’s a weird time, but boy oh boy does 2012 have a lot of movies I could have chosen to be my favorite film of the year. The big showdown really came down to two different movies, but there are plenty of movies from 2012 that are certainly worth your time. I’m a huge fan of the Laika animation team, and I think my personal favorite of their movies is still ParaNorman, mainly because I’m a huge sucker for Halloween stories about weird unpopular kids who love strange media. Go figure. I also really love Jeff Nichols’ Mud, a movie that absolutely blew me away when I saw it, and has kind of continuously made me disappointed in everything Nichols has made since. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Dredd, a movie that rules and which I saw after getting out of jury duty, because it just felt right. I also really like Seven Psychopaths, despite the fact that it doesn’t come close to matching the power of In Bruges. It also shouldn’t be a surprise, due to the amount of times I’ve spoken about Steven Spielberg, that I really like Lincoln, one of those movies that hammers in the idea that any story is more engaging if it’s structured like a caper. I’ve also been in the bag for Rian Johnson for quite some time, but I think Looper was the movie that first got me fascinated with his filmography, going back to his previous two films and getting me fully invested in anything he’d make after. I’ve said my piece about Skyfall on this site before, so there’s really no need to rehash that whole thing. And, you know, the Avengers is a fascinating movie that changed the world of cinema despite aging rather poorly. The film of 2012 that I really struggle with the most though, is Holy Motors, a film that I know plenty of people love, but has just never quite clicked with me. There are elements I love, like the accordion scene, but it’s just never hit me the right way. Which kind of brings us to the film that almost got the top spot, the Master. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, and I feel like I should love the Master. But, there’s just something about it that I’ve never quite connected with, at least as heavily as I have the other films of his. It’s a movie that I respect quite a bit, and that I end up thinking about quite frequently, but when it came down to decide between it and Quentin Tarantino’s insane Django Unchained, I had to go with my violent, chaotic heart.
Like so many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, this one began life thanks to his obsession with genre movies. Tarantino has always loved Spaghetti Westerns, and in 2007 came up with the idea of taking the aesthetics and morality of the Spaghetti Western and bringing it to the Deep South, pre-Civil War, to make something that he called “a Southern.” From there he began crafting a story about a slave getting the chance to get revenge on the entire system of racial slavery, while lending from the insanity of the lesser-known Spaghetti Western films, specifically the film Django and the never-ending slew of unofficial sequels, utilizing the name. Which gave Tarantino the mission of finding the perfect actor to bring his version of Django to life. And, like so many famous Hollywood stories, he initially wanted to go with Will Smith. But, Will Smith seems to have received some sort of curse making him incapable of signing onto massive films that would re-contextualize his career, and he passed, setting the role up for Jamie Foxx. They then filmed the movie throughout the country, attempting to bring the specific look of the American South to the screen, while Tarantino had to deal with working with an editor other than Sally Menke for the first time in his career, since she had passed away. He then assembled a soundtrack utilizing classic Western score already recorded, and a bunch of new songs by contemporary soul stars. All of which came together to make a film perfect for a Christmas release. Which, you’d think would be a set up for a joke about how terrible the movie did. But, no! People flocked to see it, making it one of Tarantino’s most successful films ever, earning quite a bit of critical and commercial love, and even getting several awards, including two Oscars. And with good reason, because this movie is a sight to behold.
The story begins in Texas in 1958 when a former dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz approaches two slavers known as the Speck Brothers in order to inquire about one of the men they own. The man’s name is Django, and he used to work on a plantation that also employed three men known as the Brittle Brothers. Schultz has a bounty on the Brittle Brothers, but doesn’t know what they look like. So, he buys Django and offers the man his freedom in exchange for helping him identify the Brittle Brothers. Django agrees, and after struggling with some of the finer points of bounty hunting, he prepares himself to accompany Schultz to a plantation owned by a man named Big Daddy Bennett in Tennessee, where the Brittle Brothers are currently employed, under a different name. And, with Django’s help, the Brothers are identified and quickly dispatched by both Schultz and Django, getting them three corpses and a lot of hatred from Big Daddy. To the point where he rustles up a few other Klan members to accompany him on a raid of Schultz and Django’s camp, hoping to catch the two men to kill them. But, Schultz out-thinks the men and is able to take them down, letting he and Django escape Tennessee.
At which point Schultz learns that Django is looking for a way to find and free his wife, Broomhilde von Shaft, who he was separated from when he was sold to the Speck Brothers. And, because Schultz has become so impressed with Django, he offers him a deal. If Django would spend a few months working with Schulz, earning some money and learning how to become a bounty hunter, he would help Django find Hilde. And, after their time together Schultz is able to ascertain that Hilde is currently the property of a man named Calvin Candie, owner of a massive plantation in Mississippi. They also learn that Candie operates a slave fighting ring, which gives them an idea for an in. They concoct a ruse where Schultz is a wealthy slave-owner looking for a new fighting slave, and that Django is his partner, an expert in fighters. And, after meeting Candie and catching his interest with a promise of a very high budget for a slave, Schultz and Django are invited at Candyland, Candie’s plantation. But, almost immediately Schultz becomes disenchanted of the grim truth of Southern slavery, finding an immediate disgust of Candie and his lifestyle. They play their cards right though, and manage to set up a meeting with Hilde before discussing the purchase. Django and Schultz then make their presence known to Hilde, and tell her to keep calm while they finish their scam.
And, it seems to go well for a while. During a dinner with Candie and his litany, they begin making a deal where Schultz would buy one of Candie’s most expensive fighting slaves, returning in a few days with the money. And, as a bonus, he offers to buy Hilde and take her directly. Candie loves the idea, but his head house slave Stephen recognizes what’s actually going on, and lets Candie know he’s being made a fool of. Candie then holds Schultz and Django hostage, taking all of their money for Hilde. The trio then prepare to leave Candyland, defeated but still with Hilde, when Candie begins mocking Schultz, finally drawing enough ire that the man shoots and kills him. Schultz is then killed as Candie’s men react violently, leading to a massive shoot-out that ends when Django is finally captured. Stephen then convinces Candie’s sister to sell Django to a mining company where the rest of his short life will be full of misery. But, Django manages to escape the miners with tales of money and bounties, and heads back to Candyland, fully armed and ready to take the entire place down. Django then goes on a rampage, killing off the rest of Candie’s family, business partners, and staff, before blowing his entire home up. And, with Candyland destroyed, Django and Hilde saddle up and head off into the sunset, ready to begin their lives together again.
There was a part of me that was a tad concerned about revisiting Django Unchained for this project. It had been a while since I’d last seen it, and I was a little worried that some of the more “Tarantino” elements of the film would have aged it a little too much. We all know that Tarantino likes to push some boundaries, and I knew that this movie really took advantage of the period language to toss around racial epithets, but I didn’t remember that there were quite so many. And, that’s certainly something that could taint your appreciation of this film. Yeah, it’s probably pretty accurate to the way people in the pre-Civil War Deep South spoke, but it can also be rather excessive. So, I can totally understand if that is enough to keep you from appreciating the film, but there’s just so much more to love about it than to hate about it. At least to me. I adore just about every film of Tarantino’s, but I’ve found myself growing a special place in my heart for this most recent era of his filmography, Hateful Eight not necessarily included, which feature him making insane movie full of righteous vengeance for historical wrongs. And this film is probably the most wild of that little trilogy. Jamie Foxx is terrific as Django, dialing back a lot of his usual bravado while still oozing an insane amount of charisma to make Django a perfect hero. Leonardo DiCaprio gets a lot of attention for his unhinged role as Calvin Candie, and for good reason, because he’s a legitimate treat in this film, and honestly the role that I think should have gotten him his long-gestating Oscar. And as time has gone on I almost find myself preferring this performance from Christoph Waltz even more than Hans Landa, really creating a wonderful character who worked so beautifully with Django.
And it’s that relationship which I think makes Django work as well as it does. Tarantino makes good movies, certainly good action movies, and this whole experiment in making a Western in his specific style leads to a very fun movie. It’s full of exciting action, great music, and truly wonderful cinematography, all of which comes together to create a hell of a film. But, at its heart, the thing that makes the movie work as well as it does for me is that relationship between Django and Schultz. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve seen in a movie before, especially in a Tarantino movie. Schultz is perhaps the most thoroughly decent and good character Tarantino has ever written, a bounty hunter with a heart of gold who actually treat Django like a real person, and goes on an insane quest to save his wife, only to have no recourse but to kill a terrible man out of sheer ethical standards. And, this good man finds Django, a useful person who can help him accomplish a goal, and ends up forging a beautiful friendship. Schultz becomes a mentor, a father-figure, and confidant. The Western genre is often one full of rugged individualism, tough men leading tough lives on their own. And yet, this is a movie about two unlikely heroes, finding strength through each other to survive a horrible world full of horror and pain. Django gets where he’s going thanks to someone actually believing in him, treating him like a human being, and helping him become the person he was meant to be. Because in the face of a world full of injustice all we have is each other.
Django Unchained was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and released by the Weinstein Company, 2012.
Categories: Cinematic Century