If there is any movie this year that beat my personal expectations this year, it’s going to be Django Unchained. I came into the movie uncertain that I’d enjoy it; the trailers did nothing for me and the plot seemed questionable, but brother convinced me to go and thank god he did, because I loved this fucking movie. The plot was decent enough, if not completely unrealistic given that it’s the 1850s and that there was a black guy going around insulting people left and right, but it worked. What really blew me away though was the fantastic performances from the cast.
They say that, when making an argument, you’re supposed to start off with your strongest argument, so I’ve got to start with Christopher Waltz’s performance as Dr. King Schultz. Holy shit he was great, and probably stole the entire movie, or at least up until Stephen’s appearance. I fell in love with Christopher Waltz as an actor after his last venture with Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, and he did not disappoint here. He gives his character so much wit and intelligence, not to mention that character had an intriguing sense of morality. Take the scene, for instance, when he gives Django his first official kill. The man they are meant to obtain is farming the land with his child, and Django feels it’s morally wrong to shoot down the man in front of his child. First Schultz teases Django a bit for taking too long, then hits him with two points from his own moral reasoning: that at least the kid will have a chance to say goodbye to his father, which he wouldn’t if they killed him while he was alone, and that this is a man who murdered numerous people, and the last few moments that he would get are more than he deserves. Waltz brings such greatness to this scene that he really does get the audience on his side, and I suspect most of the audience probably started on Django’s side. The entire film is full of instances of Waltz’s great acting prowess, and I don’t want to ruin the rest of the movie, so just trust me that Waltz is truly fantastic in this.
If we’re to say that Waltz stole the first two-thirds of the movie, then there is no question that Samuel L. Jackson stole the last third, as the house slave Stephen. Stephen’s loyalty to his master, and hatred for black people is so insane, that he probably goes beyond the description of an Uncle Tom and borders on being Uncle Ruckus (No Relation). I don’t even want to go into specific scenes that involve Stephen because they’re all too good to spoil, but Sam Jackson did an amazing job making you truly hate a character you would normally have sympathy for. From the instant change in tone he has when speaking in front of white people than when he’s in front of slaves, to the slight shake he has, Sam Jackson truly created a character that is truly unredeemable by any standard; a vile creature who turns on his own in an instant to appease his superiors.
In terms of acting, the last one I want to talk about is Leonardo DiCaprio. This isn’t because he was something truly outstanding to the level that Waltz and Jackson performed at, but that he performed so far above the usual level that I’ve come to expect from him. I’m not the biggest Leo fan, I like the movies he’s in, but I always find that the movies he finds himself in are good, not because of him, but because they were already well written when he joined on. I’ve never seen him bring anything special or unique to his characters, his acting always seems stiff and procedural. The script says to say something and behave a certain way, so that’s what he does. He doesn’t do it badly, he just doesn’t give you anything unique, he doesn’t present you with something that another actor couldn’t do. For instance, Waltz has a certain whimsy quality that he gives his characters, to the point that even villainous characters that we’re supposed to hate can have moments of likability when we forget for a moment that we hate them: Exhibit A. Jackson provides us with the fire and the fury that we’ve all come to love; a rage that can be truly terrifying, and a stare that pierces you: Exhibit B. With Leo, there isn’t really any unique quality that he brings to his characters, but in this film he definitely went above his usually acting ability. He didn’t reach the level of true greatness, but he was very good, to the point that he was able to act right through an accidental injury (possible spoilers in link) and not break character.
The music was another wonderful part of the film. From the very intro we get a song that perfectly sets the mood of the film, a bit silly, a bit western, and a lot of fun. One of the smartest things that Tarantino has made in his career is when he took the advice of his friend, Robert Rodriguez, and started making original scores for his films, instead of just playing popular music all the time. In this movie however, Tarantino struck a nice balance between providing the audience with an original score, and songs that weren’t written for the movie, but fit the scene beautifully. Again we find ourselves in a moment where I can’t give the example I want because it’s such a fun moment that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but trust me when I say the music really helps make the movie.
So yes, the movie isn’t historically accurate by any means, but after Inglourious Basterds I think we can all agree that historical accuracy isn’t at the top of Tarantino’s list of concerns when making a film. The action is great, there is some true comedy gold in it (the white bag scene) and the acting is incredible, hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.