“Django Unchained,” R
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Run time: 165 minutes
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
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Even in today’s society, there are subjects that few people have the sheer audacity to talk about, let alone make a movie about. Then again, the man behind a film like “Django Unchained” never has been afraid of stepping on a few toes.
In 1858, the slavery business in America never has been better. Among the Caucasian populace of the South, hardly anyone shows compassion for the black people treated as chattel, but that’s not a universal viewpoint. Dentist turned bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is on the lookout for someone who can help him track down his latest quarry, and he finds it in a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), whom he promptly sets free.
Assisting Schultz in seeking out criminals wanted by the government, Django finds his niche: killing white folks for money. However, as satisfying as this is, his only real desire is to find his wife (Kerry Washington), who was torn away from him during an escape attempt.
Schultz is happy to oblige his new associate, but arranging freedom for the love of Django’s life is easier said than done when they learn her new owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), the well-to-do proprietor of one of the biggest plantations in Mississippi, is well beyond the typical levels of cruelty.
Foxx takes his role for all it’s worth as the lifelong victim of torment who uses his newfound freedom to exact vengeance for all the injustices of slavery: every beating, every slur, every day he’s never been seen as a real person. But Django must tread lightly in his new position, watching his every step as he and his new partner attempt to save his wife under the guise of getting involved within the Mandingo fighting circuit, an underground ordeal in which black men are forced into fights to the death for the amusement of their owners.
DiCaprio oozes charm and loathsomeness simultaneously as Calvin Candie, the man who’s probably the biggest aficionado for this particularly despicable sport. It’s disturbing to think someone born in this day and age could get so in touch with a character so imbued with everything wrong with the antebellum period, the dapper boy king of the Deep South so steeped in tradition he can’t even fathom treating his workers as equals.
It’s kind of a switch to see Waltz, who came to fame playing duplicitous Nazi Hans Landa, as a man who champions racial harmony, but he’s just as capable as a good guy as the German gunslinger who becomes Django’s most trusted friend. Perhaps it helps that the woman they’re trying to liberate has a bit of German upbringing, leaving him to see his traveling companion as the dark-skinned equivalent of the mythic hero Siegfried.
Washington is delightful as the lovely Broomhilda, who mostly appears to her husband in hallucinatory forms and memories of the two of them sharing whuppings. Their shared facial brands — an “R” for runaway — show what love can endure even in the worst of times.
Not all the downtrodden are so eager to be relieved of their overseers, though.
Samuel L. Jackson is vexing and often hilarious as Candie’s favorite house slave, Steven, whose hatred for his own kind hits new highs when he meets a troublemaker like Django. And you thought he said the N-word a lot in “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”
There’s probably no one in the film industry who’s so overly comfortable with throwing around the word as Quentin Tarantino, and you almost have to wonder whether the writer-director made a movie set before the Civil War strictly so he could be historically accurate with this ethnic epithet. As the latest in his line of slaughter-everyone-in-sight revenge movies, the man who brought us “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds” spares no expense in bringing us his re-imagining of movies past.
Taking its name and basic concept from the 1960s spaghetti Western “Django” — the star of which, Franco Nero, has the briefest of cameos — Tarantino gives us exactly what we’d expect with his self-stylized Southern with a ridiculous amount of blood, savage violence and the prototype for the Ku Klux Klan, with a group of good ol’ boys led by Don Johnson who just can’t seem to get their hoods right. As usual, the dude behind the camera walks the line between art house auteur and maker of B-movie schlock, but after coming off the more intellectual “Basterds,” he clearly can’t resist some of his indulgences.
Some are assets, like the music that includes Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” Ennio Morricone’s “Ancora Qui” and Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins,” on which Foxx chimes in, while others are major liabilities, namely making the whole movie just a little too comical, so much so you almost forget it’s about the worst practice ever to occur in America.
Like last year’s “The Help,” the hindrance of a film like this is that it’s a view of the black experience conceived entirely by a white person. Still, whatever Spike Lee might make of it, “Django Unchained” stands out as a sharply observed, shrewdly constructed piece of cinema that blasts through barriers like a sawed-off shotgun.
Even if there’s a bit of guilt, it’s all you can do not to like a movie with the catchphrase, “I like the way you die, boy.”
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.