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Review: Django Unchained

With Quentin Tarantino, it’s never about the story.

When the maverick director chooses a premise, he leans towards the audacious, the irreverent, the exploitative–but only on the surface. Django Unchained, his latest effort, utilizes the tropes and conventions of the blaxploitation genre (drawing particular inspiration from sleazier productions, such as Goodbye Uncle Tom and Mandingo) to create a stylized impression of the shameful history of slavery in America (similar to his depiction of World War II in Inglourious Basterds). Spike Lee can object to this subject matter all he wants, can deride the film as “offensive” and “disrespectful,” can refuse to watch a single frame of it until both he and Tarantino are dead and buried, and it will never mean a Goddamn thing. Because it’s not about the story. It’s about the fullness of the characters, the rhythm of the dialogue, the effortless tension which pervades every scene.

In other words, it’s about the storytelling.

Tarantino’s mastery over his craft is apparent in every minute of every movie he makes. He seems to know instinctively how to manipulate and misdirect audience expectations, how to deftly orchestrate situations in order to generate maximum suspense. The quintessential example of his slow-simmer approach to constructing set pieces occurs in Inglourious Basterds: Michael Fassbender’s cool, cultured Archie Hicox, undercover behind enemy lines, finds himself face to face with Major Dieter Hellstrom, a shrewd operative of the SS; by adding Hugo Stiglitz (who made a hobby of murdering Gestapo agents even before joining Aldo’s merry band of Nazi-scalpers) into the mix, Tarantino concocts a potent recipe for one hell of a taut game of cat-and-mouse.

The second half of Django Unchained follows the same basic formula. With the help of kindhearted bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the newly-liberated Django (Jamie Foxx) tracks his long-lost love (Kerry Washington) to Candie Land, a sprawling plantation owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). In order to avoid arousing suspicion, our two heroes infiltrate the property under false pretenses: Schultz poses as a showman hoping to break into the bloodsport of “Mandingo fighting,” while Django reluctantly adopts the role of a black slave trader acting as Schultz’s consultant. But as they witness one atrocity after another, both men find it increasingly difficult to keep up the charade–and their discomfort catches the attention of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s fiercely loyal house slave.

Such a volatile setup can lead only to a blood-soaked payoff, and Tarantino has never been prone to squeamishness; on the contrary, he revels in deconstructing the nature of violence, examining the myriad emotional responses it evokes and provokes. Django Unchained continues that proud tradition: the camera observes the brutal, dehumanizing indignities suffered by the black characters with sober, unflinching detachment, inspiring horror, disgust, and anger at the sickening injustice of it all; at the other end of the spectrum, the gleefully-gory action sequences–which invite the viewer to cheer as the protagonists mow down their white tormentors by the dozen–are zealous, cathartic, and gut-bustingly hilarious.

And then there’s the anomaly, the shockingly somber exception to the rule. Django, still in the early stages of his Hero’s Journey, stares down the iron sights of his rifle. His target plows the dry, empty field below–shadowed closely by a little boy, no older than ten. “I can’t,” the newly-minted mercenary mutters. Schultz berates his companion for hesitating: this man, he argues, may have chosen the life of a simple farmer, but he left countless corpses in his wake, earning the $7,000 price on his head. Django sighs, steadies his aim, and squeezes the trigger. The crack of the gunshot rolls over the hills like distant thunder. The retired criminal collapses, sending up a cloud of dust. The echo of the child’s laughter quickly fades as he comes to a grim realization: daddy isn’t just fooling around. He can only choke out a single word to express his disbelief: “Papa?”

Perhaps the “pursuit of vengeance” is less noble and clean in practice than it is in theory.

[Originally written December 26, 2012.]

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