****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw If Inglourious Basterds was an ambiguous, brilliant indictment of "Jewish vengeance" wrapped in this impossibly canny exploration of violence through screenwriting, performance, and love of film, think of Quentin Tarantino's follow-up, Django Unchained, as a glorious continuation of what has become a singular artist's evolving theme. It demonstrates an absolute command of the medium, of what film can do when tasked to do more than usual, and it does it by being some of the finest film criticism of the year. If the Coens are our best literary critics, then Tarantino is our best film critic cum sociologist, and his topics, again, are how we understand history through specific prisms and how violence can be both catharsis and atrocity--often in the same breath and almost always in the same ways. Consider that this difficult film's most difficult moment comes, as it does in Inglourious Basterds, at the very end, in an unbearably ugly act of violence perpetrated against not the expected slave-owner antagonist, Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), but his manservant Stephen/Stepin (Samuel L. Jackson). Consider, too, the idea that vengeance--particularly in our post-9/11 environment--is the proverbial tiger we've caught by the tail: our cultural legacy that we try to justify through any means, given that our ends are so very righteous.
A spaghetti western on the surface, Django Unchained owes as much a debt to Leone as it does to the Sergio Corbucci-inaugurated series of films that gave it its name, with the recasting of the malleable Django (Jamie Foxx) as a black guy carrying with it the same kind of fissionable charge as the casting of Heathcliff as an African in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights. The revenge plot takes on a larger scope instantly: This Django is out to avenge not simply the abduction of his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington), but all the evils of slavery, the thought being that all is forgivable given the extent of the outrage. But just like the torture debate that erupted around Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, the question posed by Django Unchained (not unlike the one Inglourious Basterds asks) is at what point do the moral compromises the avenger uses in achieving his ends actually diminish the moral ground of the aggrieved? For all its bombast and flourish, the movie's lingering power comes from its introspection--from the reality, by the time the credits roll, that the only good whitey is a dead one (literally in one instance), as Django goes from purified by his victimization to stained by his rage. It's Tarantino at his most subversive--pulling laughter from the holy slaughter of the helpless and dressing a key transitional moment with Jim Croce's '70s stoner affirmation "I Got a Name." In a slavery epic's terms, it's perhaps not a big leap to go from "I have a voice" to "I have a dream." Django's dream is burning massah's house to the foundation--though not until he's butchered everyone in it--and celebrating by having his horse do series of parade tricks in what has been for me the film's most enduring, and haunted, image.
It opens with Django marching across a wintry Texas wasteland in a chain gang from which he's freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), who gives him the opportunity to earn a living "killing white folks." Django's ultimate aim is to reclaim his lost love, and it becomes clear in a brilliantly-scripted film's best dialogue sequence that his wife is named "Broomhilda" and that Schultz sees his quest at least in some part as the fulfillment of Wagnerian destiny. Fair to say that however Tarantino butchers the Nibelungenlied, he divines a relationship between the sweeping concerns of Leone's work (and the Kurosawa samurai flicks that inspired them) and Django's quest across this unquiet historical landscape to wallow by the end in dismemberment and barbarism. It is in this way as sharp an adaptation as the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou?, capturing the sweep and intent of its myriad sources even as it strays, repeatedly and appropriately, into culturally-specific byroads and tributaries. This is also Tarantino at his most playful as he allows slapstick in Django's choice of clothing when given the chance, for the first time in his life, to dress himself; in a cameo by the original Django, Franco Nero, who assures our Django that he knows the "d" is silent; and in an extended sequence where Stephen objects to housing Django in the main house like an ordinary guest. That playfulness is there, too, in Stephen's relationship with master Candie, which eventually takes shape as something other than genre homage. Tarantino is less a fanboy than Dr. Frankenstein by way of T.S. Eliot: In his assembly of something other from all these spare parts, he's either a genius or a savant, I don't know, but wholly without equal.
The tricky conflict Tarantino establishes in the film is between Django and Stephen (the one playing at "black slaver," the other playing at subservient "Tom") and, conversely, between Schultz and Candy (both reliant on and respectful of their black "partners" while working under the yoke of the master/slave dynamic). Django is a "free man" bound by the need for vengeance; Stephen is a slave, though it's apparent that his standing in Candie's household is one of "trusted confidante." Stephen "betrays" his race; Django, in allowing great harm to come to a pair of "mandingo fighters," essentially does the same. Stephen is interested in protecting his master and his standing, such as it is; Django is interested only in carrying his wife away into the unknowable future. The ills of slavery are ancillary (as they are in Lincoln, let's face it), just as the ills of the Holocaust are ancillary in Inglourious Basterds; the question of the film is as simple as, What is permissible in the defense of honour and dignity? A picture very much about language, Django Unchained challenges the idea that words mean anything; a picture very much about actions, it challenges the notion that actions are by themselves meaningful. It's unsettled and unsettling, and as it goes to black at the end, there's the reminder that its heroes are as branded as the Nazi Landa. In this kind of bloody conflagration, no one gets out unmarked.
Should Tarantino keep his promise and Django Unchained be one of the last films he makes before retiring, what will remain is a body of work as vital and wise about cinema as any volume of critical history. Through this lens, the Civil War of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly comes into focus. Django Unchained also lends clarity to how Italian cinema, riding the cusp of American genre film from the late-'60s into the '70s, gains definition as that country's own "new wave." The picture is in many ways the first and last word on an entire period--and there aren't many movies in the medium's history that can make that claim. The marvel of it isn't that it's smart--any number of films, every year, are as smart and self-aware--but that it manages its introspection without sacrificing its exuberance and, to a large extent, a certain unapologetic prurience. There were better films than Django Unchained in 2012, but none that I enjoyed more, none that caused me more often to question my prejudices and expectations, definitely none that used John Legend and Johnny Cash in the same sentence so well and to such tremendous, poignant effect. I hear there's a five-hour cut somewhere out there, that it was originally conceived as a two-parter like Kill Bill. If these things are true, I don't know that I could bear that much happiness. Originally published: December 24, 2012.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Distributed by eOne in Canada and Anchor Bay stateside, the Blu-ray release of Django Unchained presents the film in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer best described as high-fidelity. Shot in 35mm Panavision (nice to see Quentin Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson working in true 'scope again following their overdue return to the format with Inglourious Basterds), the picture has softish detail that revels in lens aberrations and focal distortions. Dynamic range is impeccable, and though colours come close to crushing in the more luxurious hues of the Candyland palette, magnifying the image reveals a wealth of texture within these intense shades that probably resolves better on monitors larger than my 46-incher. Note that the second, "southern" part of the film was graded to evoke the brilliant saturation of the Technicolor IB process, while the "western" section has a slight purple-cinnamon finish that looks very natural or photochemical on the small screen. Grain is token except during flashbacks, which were shot on reversal stock and pushed to exaggerate grain and blow out contrast. Presented in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, the mix too is faithfully reproduced on this disc. Most of the songs were notoriously sourced from Tarantino's own vinyl collection, but I'll be damned if I detected any hiss or pops (Douglas E. Winter observed the supernatural care with which Tarantino must treat his records in a recent VIDEO WATCHDOG column), and the great title song from the 1966 Django, whose sonic limitations were exposed in a 250-seat auditorium, sounds marginally less brittle at home. As in the Kill Bill volumes, bass is sharp and visceral.
Disappointingly, there are no deleted scenes on the platter, and after being ubiquitous in the press when the movie came out, Tarantino all but sits out a batch of extras that begins with "Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained" (13 mins., HD). Riva died unexpectedly during shooting of the film last year (the only one of many production setbacks discussed in these supplements, alas), but not before completing work on the sets or recording the talking-head excerpted liberally here. Colleagues describe Django Unchained as something of a dream project for Riva, and the piece ends on a storefront façade bearing his name. "Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained" (14 mins., HD) is mostly about the horses, fourteen of which fell on cue in the wagon explosion thanks to genius, nth generation stunt coordinator Jeff "Dash" Dashnaw. Tarantino pops up briefly to explain that he placed the American Humane Association's seal of approval at the top of the closing credits to put nervous viewers at ease, and then we meet quick-draw artist Thell Reed, who some enterprising individual should make a documentary about. Lastly, "The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis" (12 mins., HD) finds Davis breaking down her wardrobe concepts, receiving occasional reinforcement from actor soundbites. She made me realize the film wasn't nominated for a Costume Design Oscar and wonder why. A Django Unchained soundtrack spot and a preview for the "Tarantino XX" Blu-ray collection round out the eOne BD; trailers for Red 2 and Now You See Me cue up on startup. Both editions include DVD and Digital copies of Django Unchained.