The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 4, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Django' polishes violence, racism into compelling movie

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — When Quentin Tarantino first broke into the cinematic world, it was with the compellingly gritty, witty and entertaining crime film "Reservoir Dogs." He reaffirmed his status as one to watch with the groundbreaking masterpiece that is "Pulp Fiction."

Since then, he has semi-regularly churned out film after film in his own imitatable style, full of wordy and clever dialogue exchanges, graphic violence and black humor. In the 20 years since that initial debut, Tarantino, in the span of only eight films, has cemented his place among the great writers and directors in film.

His latest, the bloody western/slave drama hybrid "Django Unchained," continues to show that, even when Tarantino doesn't necessarily break new ground, he is able to explore existing areas with a fresh eye.

"Django" is another film in what could be deemed the revenge fantasy phase of Tarantino's career, following both volumes of "Kill Bill," "Death Proof," and the World War II reimagining "Inglorious Basterds."

Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who partners up with German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to track down a trio of wanted felons in exchange for both his freedom and Schultz's help in finding and freeing Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to nefarious plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Django and Schultz make a formidable pair of hunters, successfully claiming many bounties before the weather turns mild enough to begin their quest to find and purchase Broomhilda. To do so, they must pose as Mandingo promoters looking to purchase a slave for the purposes of fighting.

"Django" once again trades in Tarantino's manic insanity and anachronisms. The movie is brutally gory. A scene featuring Mandingo fighting is particularly hard to watch. It's blatant in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery. In more serious hands, it would be a somber examination of a dark chapter of our nation's history. However, in Tarantino's, it instead becomes a film of empowerment and strength.

Foxx is good as the quiet, driven Django. He is stoic and somber, allowing himself to open up only when he builds trust in Schultz.

The Oscar-winning actor has tried and failed to make a name for himself as an action star ("Stealth," "Miami Vice"), but he shows more action chops in this film than we've seen yet. In addition, his delivery compliments Tarantino's written wit, allowing him to be funnier than he's been in a while.

Waltz is once again rock solid as Tarantino's go-to man. Though his Schultz is not nearly as showy as his Hans Landa from "Basterds," it is far more fully developed than those that he's resigned himself to playing in non-Tarantino scripted films ("Water for Elephants," "The Green Hornet"). Waltz adds most of the humor to the film, and manages to make a cold-blooded killer one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie.

The standout of the film, however, is DiCaprio as Candie. He oozes smarm and charisma simultaneously, turning on the charm while maintaining a vague aura of intimidation. While I'm fairly certain DiCaprio just adapted the persona he uses at Victoria's Secret fashion shows, it is still a career-defining performance that should garner quite a bit of recognition come awards time.

And as evil as Candie is, equally despicable is his house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen has turned his self-loathing outward, pouring it out on fellow slaves. He is dumbfounded that Django would ride onto the plantation a free man and treats him with outright hostility and contempt because of it. Though Candie may be the slave master, Stephen may be the truer villain of the film.

Much has been made of both the over-the-top violence and liberal use of a certain racial slur that starts with "N," and both are very prevalent throughout. In one climactic scene, bullets rain down as flesh is torn and thrown through the air. It is so extreme that it tips over to humorous.

As for the racial slurs used throughout the film, they can be hard to listen to, but they stand as a representation of a hate-filled time. But even here, Tarantino manages to highlight the ignorance of those who would use such language. One scene showing a forerunner to the Ku Klux Klan grabs the biggest laughs in the film.

And two casting choices served only to distract from the on-screen action. One shows Jonah Hill as a member of the aforementioned hate group, but as soon as he appeared I could hear throughout my section of the theater the same question: "Is that Jonah Hill?"

Likewise, Tarantino revisited a bad habit from earlier movies by casting himself in a fairly prominent role. His first appearance elicited laughter from the audience, a reaction that I'm sure he didn't anticipate, but which goes to show that he is better served not indulging in his acting whims.

Tarantino has once again crafted an entertaining movie dealing with an ugly time, which allows the oppressed to be heroic and grants a satisfying vengeance in a slick re-write of history. Though not quite as much fun as "Basterds" and not the masterpiece that "Fiction" still remains, "Django Unchained" is still an extremely fun and extremely polished look at a very ugly topic.