Quentin Tarantino, whose film plots are often fueled by a mania for vengeance, has struck again with the Oscar-winning “Django Unchained.” The 165-minute movie is an overwhelming spectacle of violence, lust and excess that features unforgettable characters and performances.
Tarantino’s previous film, the revisionist “Inglourious Basterds,” presented Jewish and other victims of the Nazis taking mighty, ahistorical revenge. “Django Unchained” (released in Japan as “Django Tsunagarezarumono”) is cut from the same cloth. It features a former slave on a mission to cut down, often literally, white plantation owners across the Deep South.
“I know the extremism of my role is something you’ve rarely seen and … not likely to see me ever repeating,” says Samuel L. Jackson. He plays a 76-year-old antebellum slave who is excessively subservient and therefor “doesn’t even start to define what ‘Uncle Tom’ means.”
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the villain, a foppish but dastardly Southern aristocrat and plantation owner. “It’s the boldest statement yet, I think, about slavery and that time in America’s history,” he says. “No matter how crazy our movie seems, it’s not as extreme as the institutions and many of the real-life characters and stories of that period.”
Jamie Foxx, who plays title character Django, explains: “It’s like that old (1975) movie, ‘Mandingo.’ You ever see that? It was wild, man. Quentin says back then everyone thought it was too wild, really pushing the envelope.”
In the film, the frightened Django changes from a captured runaway slave to a cold-blooded professional assassin with a nifty wardrobe and hat. Tarantino tosses hip-hop and Ennio Morricone music into his fantasy mix.
The transformation is effected by Dr. King Schultz, a German-American bounty hunter who mentors Django and offers to make him his partner. The part is played by Christoph Waltz, who earned a best supporting actor Academy Award for his performance (he won the same honor for his role in “Inglourious Basterds”).
“Once you have worked with Quentin,” says Waltz, “you have to go back (to do another film) if he asks you. You are afraid of what you might miss, otherwise.”
Waltz describes the movie’s historical setting.
“Economic systems will be exploited by some enterprising individuals in any way possible. Slavery was very much an economic system. The American South completely depended on it. Though, of course, many Americans aren’t aware that slavery has existed in most human societies and isn’t usually a question of race, but of prisoners taken in war. So my Dr. King Schultz doesn’t see himself as savior or villain. He is just an ambitious, money-minded user.”
To bring a female presence into the plot, Tarantino — who won an Oscar for best screenplay — gives Django a wife with the unlikely name of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Django plans to rescue her from the depraved clutches of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), whose Mississippi plantation is named — what else — Candyland.
“Yeah, I did kind of reference ‘Mandingo,’ ” admits DiCaprio. “Perry King played this character with a black mistress, and he was blond and so totally into himself, never questioning his motives or how he treated anyone. Things just went crazier as it went along, but the difference is this time around, the whites don’t end up winning, ’cause things are gonna change soon.”
Set in 1858, the film has been criticized in some quarters for its high dosage of violence and torture, though that seems to go with the Tarantino territory. Notes Foxx: “It was a pretty violent time. You look at the Old West, those westerns hardly show how lawless and violent it was. … The whole slavery setup was ripe for violence and abuse of every kind. Quentin shows some of what it must’ve been like. It might be hard to look at, but it definitely had to be harder to live through.”
Despite its on-screen horrors, the movie has its lighthearted, even comedic moments. Jackson feels they serve the topic well. “If the whole thing was nonstop grim like a documentary or some westerns or prison movies, that would lose people. It would lose their interest or emotional involvement.
“It takes the lighter moments to show up the dark, heavy ones for how horrible they really are,” Jackson notes. “It shows how people can seem everyday folks, then turn around and do terrible things to other people. To themselves, even.”
Jackson’s mother was a factory worker. His father left the family and died of alcoholism. Though it wasn’t unrelievedly bleak, his past made him “appreciate the good times when they came. You find out happiness is in the moments, it’s not a whole period of time. Except in some movies.”
Jackson’s Stephen, a lifelong slave to the Candie family, identifies their welfare with his own. “Stephen hasn’t known anything but being a servant and a slave,” Jackson says. “In the world he lives in, he’s convinced he was born to serve. But he doesn’t think he’s at the bottommost rung. No. Like the head slave, he’s got power over the other slaves, and he uses it. He’s abused, he abuses.
“Any other slave is a challenge to him, and he’s gonna put them in their place before they push him down from what he thinks is his pedestal,” Jackson continues. “It’s all relative. It’s all about insecurity and human nature, and wanting to always have someone down there beneath you.”
Jackson doesn’t confirm it — “I haven’t counted lately” — but he’s reportedly acted in over 100 movies. He will soon return as Nick Fury in the upcoming “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (and may re-reprise Fury in “The Avengers 2”), provide the voice of Whiplash in “Turbo” and costar in the “Robocop” remake.
Does Jackson plan to take a break soon? He laughs. “It takes a long while to reach a certain level of success, and when you do — and some don’t, you know — you want to stay there, especially when they keep making you offers you don’t want to refuse.”
Foxx, 45, didn’t have the same goal as Jackson. “I liked to make people laugh, man. Class clown,” he snickers. He became a comedian and a singer, and hit the celluloid big-time with his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles in “Ray.” “I like being able to mix what’s dramatic, like, and have some humor in it. … Quentin’s great at bringing everything in but that old kitchen sink. He writes all these great lines and he gets in these little philosophy things, and the music he brings in, it’s all … He just somehow makes it all fit.”
How does Waltz see “Django Unchained,” which some label a film about slavery, and some as a Tarantino fantasy-adventure that uses slavery as an excuse for his trademark violence?
“Quentin likes to shock people,” Waltz says. “However, he also has a progressive side that likes to make a point about injustice and how it should be treated. He is also a showman, knowing how to use issues and themes that provoke and get the attention of the media.
“Naturally, he wants to sell his movies,” Waltz adds. “Not by wide publicity and interviews, but in choosing themes and characters that get attention. Besides this, he is unafraid to use film in unusual ways; he will put in discussions or comments that he has on his mind. He uses music in an innovative way — not a historically correct way, but in a way that enhances the picture and the characters.
“Also, he is good at making actors let down their hair, letting us do things in ways we might not with more … conventional directors.”
Many critics have commented on the chemistry between Waltz and Foxx. Their characters form a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts. Comments Foxx: “Christoph is an amazing actor. He, like, becomes the character, and even details, like things he does with his hands, he must have them all thought out or he’s just deciding, on the spot, this is what his character does. He’s a real smart, sharp guy, and he speaks all those languages.”
Notes Waltz: “Jamie is exuberant. I could see his enjoyment of his role, and of course he gets to make a big character leap in personality and clothes and drive. You see him building up his own self-worth. With my character’s help, but mostly it comes from within. … To me, the biggest crime of slavery — and not forgetting that it is not yet entirely gone from this planet — is that it prevents individuals from becoming the most that they are capable of being.”
“Django Unchained” is reviewed in this issue’s new-look Film section.