Dear Django Unchained,
Man, when you got started on telling your story, I swear I felt Sergio Leone grinnin’ in his grave. But then, we’re talking Tarantino, who channels influences like a world class medium. From the vintage opening score and Old West-text credits, to an appropriate slave march establishing right from the start what subject matter this story is grounded in, the tone is richly set.
As night falls and we meet the inimitable Dr. Schultz – brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz – I soon discover that Django’s future is not going to be spent in slavery. The slavery-hating reformed dentist Shultz, now a bounty hunter, enlists Django to help find his next quarry. Becoming partners, Django learns the tricks of the bounty hunting profession from Schultz as they make a pact to go after Django’s wife when spring comes and the two work through the harsh winter hunting wanted criminals for profit. When Django collects enough money to buy his wife back from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner that now possesses her, Schultz agrees to help him in his quest using Mandingo fighting as a way into the Candie circle.
Along the way, Django becomes a natural born steely-eyed killer as fast and accurate with a six-shooter as anyone you will ever see in film and to Jamie Foxx’s credit he really sells it. After the harsh winter has passed and I take stock of where this film is, I see a few styles of filmmaking some distinctly Tarantino, while others mention Peckinpah, I get more of an Eastwood action feel early on. One thing is for sure the script and the dialogue are all Quentin’s! It is never more clear when we meet the suave and brutal Calvin Candie, who is portrayed so intently and with such verve by Leonardo DiCaprio, that there is little doubt he should easily see supporting actor nods all around this year. As the game is afoot with Shultz trying to convince the dangerous Calvin that they are in the fight business looking for fighters, the thinly veiled yet courtly dialogue really shines and at the same time brilliantly portrays the polished southern sheen over the dark, evil and corrupt core that was slavery in the south during that era. Though vilified for the liberal use of the N-word, Tarantino’s unflinching approach to the language of this era and the sensibilities that drive a plantation owner like Calvin not only reeks of authenticity, but also lends an enormous amount of emotional weight to the mission that drives Django in this unvarnished portrayal.
Of course the bounty hunters little charade was very near to working, when a great Samuel L. Jackson, as Calvin’s righthand man Stephen, sniffs out the real intent to buy Django’s wife back. Of course Calvin pushes his luck until it is all used up. When Shultz makes his curious final statement and Django goes off as the killing machine he is, we finally get to see action that makes Peckinpah smile from his grave. Though it is a recognizable progression of action, it is nonetheless inspired by gritty and realistic ultra-violence as few but Tarantino can do it. It is here where we see more of the simmering rage underneath Django’s façade bust loose. Jamie Foxx’s work in the lead role is superlative for its brooding, low-key maximum intent that clearly bespeaks his mission throughout the film whenever he shows up on screen. This is why the dichotomy of Shultz, whose eloquence has so much verbally to say throughout the film is such a potent counter-point to Django, who speaks volumes without saying very much at all.
When Django comes up short on plowing through everyone on the plantation, his fate is set to be a bad deal in the end. As he is transported to the mines, his natural intelligence shines when he convinces some Aussies hauling him to go back to collect on a bounty for some wanted men. Of course when he gets back to Candie Land by himself and enacts his vengeance, I wonder how far his rage will go. Even through this is a long film, it doesn’t seem long until we find out just how far he is going to go. He deals judgment with swiftness and brutality and in the end he isn’t just going to get his wife back, he is going to eradicate the entire plantation and the Candie line permanently. Suffice it to say not even the plantation will stand in the end and it is clear Django wields his vengeance not only against this particular plantation, but against all his slavery in totality. This realization uplifts everything he does in the finale and I as a viewer never waver along side him as he does such a heinous deed.
Ultimately, that is why this film is brilliant. It really isn’t a revenge or rescue flick by definition, nor is it an anti-slavery or love film in the end. Though it has a little of all of those, it’s really a pro-humanity film that tells one man’s path to that goal as he wades through a world of casual inhumanity. I have always been a fan of yours, Quentin, and though you can be derivative, there are times when you rise above the influences of your inspiration to create something greater than its parts, as you did here.
And Django, we will meet again and I will appreciate it each time we do.