Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to show Steven Spielberg how it’s done. How could the lumbering “Lincoln” look anything but sad, staid and stale beside the thrillingly fresh and hilariously funny “Django Unchained,” a sprawling slavery saga and a joyous jolt from the moribund complacency of pictures like “Lincoln” that all but choke on their own piety. The contrast is nothing short of embarrassing.

Here from the new master – a few years after “Inglourious Basterds” – is yet another Christmas gift to movie lovers that sneaks in at year’s end and rewrites top-ten lists. This – not the safe and risk-averse “Lincoln” – is a film of true artistry and epic grandeur, of bracing, fearless wit born of profound cultural literacy. It takes Tarantino to come along every so often and remind us why we love movies, how much more reckless and daring and willful and headstrong and genuinely exciting they can be than most filmmakers and audiences realize.

Jamie Foxx plays the titular slave, Django, introduced on a slaveowner’s chain gang in antebellum Texas. Into the picture drives a curious carriage bearing a man of Alemannic accent and highfalutin vocabulary – Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who can do no wrong – well, except for “Water for Elephants”), a dentist (atop his carriage rests a giant replica of a tooth), who seeks to purchase from the owner the slave who came from a particular plantation where three wanted criminals work, under pseudonyms, as overseers. Dr. Schultz, it turns out, hasn’t practiced dentistry for five years; he’s now a bounty hunter, and he offers Django one-third of the reward money to accompany him and identify the “Brittle Brothers.” (“I get paid to ride a horse and kill white people?” Django asks. “How you think that sounds?”)

This odd couple make an excellent team, and before the winter has passed they’ve become friends. Django’s wife’s name is Broomhilda (Kerry Washington of the sleeper gem “Night Catches Us”), a name of special significance to the German-born Schultz, who relates the legend of the Ring to Django and feels both respect and an affinity for the black man. (“I am going to use this whole slavery thing to my advantage,” Schultz tells Django, “but I want you to know I do feel badly about it.”) Despite the vagaries of award-season advertising, rest assured that Waltz’s role is the lead; as Schultz pointedly reminds Django several times, he’s to do all the talking when they encounter hostile white folks (which is just about all the time, as the mere sight of a black man on a horse induces astonished double and triple takes). His work here is as good as in “Inglourious Basterds” and the character of Dr. Schultz perhaps even more unforgettable.

Their search for Broomhilda eventually takes them to the notorious plantation Candy Land, owned by the vicious Francophile “Monsieur” Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance truly worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The extended “business meeting” between Schultz, Django and Candie is a set piece every bit on the order of those in “Inglourious Basterds,” delicious in its comedy of manners, eventually operatically violent in Tarantino’s Grand Guignol style, and so well written throughout that those of us who love words will simply sit back and lap it up. (There are several other such sequences.) Samuel Jackson plays Candie’s “house nigger” Stephen, at once an obscene cartoon of Stepin Fetchit obsequiousness and a canny self-preservationist; although it’s not saying much, Jackson’s never been anywhere near this good. He had me laughing so hard I came out of my seat a couple times.

“Django Unchained” clocks in at 15 minutes short of three hours. It flies by. It’s a film of great specificity, uniquely American, yet somehow international in feel. You come alive in this film like you rarely do at the movies, all of your senses heightened, your brain fully engaged. You don’t want to miss a word of Tarantino’s dialogue. With “Django Unchained,” he stakes uncontested claim to supremacy among major writer-directors in the current cinema.

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