Awards Profile: Django Unchained

Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christoph Waltz, Don Johnson, Kurt Russell, Waltor Goggins, James Lemar, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, Gerald McRaney, and James Russo.

Synopsis (From IMDB): Set in the Deep South during the 1850s, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a German bounty hunter/former dentist who buys Django (Jamie Foxx) as a slave so that he can help Schultz identify bounties for him. After successfully helping the good doctor with his bounty hunting, Django is given his freedom papers and is recruited by Schultz to continue being his partner in the bounty hunting business.

Django hones his bounty hunting skills until Schultz thinks he is ready to go to Mississippi, in order to free his wife (Broomhilda). When they find her whereabouts through slave auction records, they discover she is in the hands of monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio); a francophile who takes great pleasure in watching Mandingos fight to the death. Django and Schultz cleverly con Candie into selling Django back his Broomhilda. But something goes rotten in the state of Denmark and Django finds himself fighting for his life, his wife, and sweet bloody vengeance.

Why It Could Succeed:
Thanks to the staggering commercial success of his last masterpiece, Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has finally proven himself to be just as beloved by audiences as he is with his adoring critics. Grossing over $300 million worldwide, Inglorious Basterds became Tarantino’s highest grossing film of his esteemed career, and buzz is only building for his next sure-to-be stupendous project. It certainly doesn’t hurt having another all-star cast involving the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx, two actors who have succeeded commercially and critically over the span of their long careers. Tarantino’s film is set in another highly controversial time period, and the pitch of this film is Roots meets Spaghetti Western saga. For those of you who know don’t about the success of the television miniseries Roots, you’ve probably been living in a bubble. That miniseries alone, which focused on one slave’s journey from Africa to his utter dehumanization by the British in the American colonies, was seen by a total of 130 million viewers during its eight part segments, making it the most watched television program in American history if you don’t count Superbowl Sundays. The topic of slavery may not be as attention-grabbing as it was in the past, but I suspect a great many viewers across demographic camps will seek the film out to witness how Tarantino handles such a tumultuous piece of American history.

Can the Tarantino/Waltz pair make magic twice?

Just like Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino tries to rewrite history to an extent by letting the minority victim enact vengeance on their oppressors, turning their tragic mistreatment into a saga where heroes are born and slaves take charge as serious bad-asses. Nobody does pulp and high-octane action with as much aesthetic panache as Quentin Tarantino, so expect many fans of Tarantino’s no-holds barred violence to dive right into this tale of revenge. The range of potential viewers is quite unlimited: diehard Tarantino aficionados, historical buffs, moviegoers nostalgic for spaghetti westerns, action junkies, and minority viewers who identify with this topical period in history (Jewish viewers for Inglorious Basterds, and now African-Americans for Django Unchained). Tarantino is one of the best directors who appeals to a wide variety of moviegoers, and this film is no exception. A film project that combines Tarantino’s direction and superlative writing abilities is a recipe for success any Hollywood day of the week. One more bonus: the film releases at the end of December, which will be one of the last movie’s the Academy will have on their minds before casting their final ballots. We all know how that turned out for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Why It Could Fail:
Because Inglorious Basterds was so heavily praised across the film-going board, the pressure is on for Django Unchained to just as brilliant, if not greater than his prior work. If you thought the subject of Nazi Germany was politically tricky to handle in Inglorious Basterds, slavery in the South is a far more delicate issue to take on. No director has really gone with this topic in such a pulpy, dare I say carefree, way before. There could be viewers out there, even hard-nosed critics, who find the way Tarantino unfolds his narrative to be highly offensive or dismissive of such tragic circumstances in our nation’s past. Even the most devoted Quentin Tarantino fan out there, like myself, could wrinkle their nose at even the slightest fraction of distastefulness. I’m sure this has weighed heavily on Tarantino’s mind, and it definitely should. The subject matter isn’t to be taken lightly.

I’m also a bit concerned about the lead casting of Jamie Foxx as title character, Django. I wouldn’t say that Jamie has suffered a backlash in more recent times, but he isn’t as heavily embraced by the critical community or general population as much as he was at the height of his film career in 2004. Whether it’s because of his music career or the fact that he never seems to take seriously his recent film roles, the respect for Foxx as an actor has slightly diminished. I believe I’m not alone in saying Foxx’s top tier work was in Michael Mann’s Collateral, because he didn’t try to be so showy or fanciful with the role, simply playing a normal guy who has to handle an extraordinarily unlucky circumstance. If Jamie Foxx sheds away his “look at me” shtick of acting that we’ve been subjected to lately and goes back to embellishing his “average Joe” persona, he may find success as Django. If not, I don’t think he’ll be able to nail the emotional underpinnings that Django carries underneath his façade of ruthless bounty hunter. Jamie Foxx can play an overly charismatic action star, but will he have the gravitas to balance out Django’s vulnerability? I’m not convinced until I see the final product.

Leonardo DiCaprio is also a unique pairing with Tarantino. On the one hand, yes it’s exciting that two of the best forces in Hollywood are finally teaming up, but it also begs the question: will this match-up work? Tarantino has a bit of fun in his works, laying out some dark humor amidst the chaos and serious storytelling. I don’t know that Leonardo will be able to sell some of Tarantino’s humor without looking ridiculous. It’s going to take a lot to outdo Brad Pitt’s “Arrevaderci” scene in Inglorious Basterds, and I don’t think DiCaprio has the comedic range to pull off such humorous bits. Also, can DiCaprio shine as a villain? Yeah, he always plays the tragic hero, but villainy is usually not in this actor’s film repertoire. I think villainy will be easier for DiCaprio to tackle than dark comedy, but it could be a challenge for this actor who hasn’t particularly ventured outside the “wounded hero” territory.

Awards Speculation:
Perhaps the most likely award that Django Unchained will be nominated for is “Best Original Screenplay.” Besides the fact that there aren’t many original screenplays building buzz on the 2013 awards circuit, Tarantino’s writing can always be counted on to be both highly suspenseful and masterfully poetic. I don’t care if you thought The Hurt Locker was the best thing since the invention of Nutella — you cannot ever convince me that Mark Boal’s screenplay was deserving of a win over Tarantino’s script for Inglorious Basterds. That first chapter alone with Hans Landa’s monologue comparing the oppressed Jews to rats was both terrifying yet beautifully written, strengthened only by the chilly delivery by Christoph Waltz, and stands as one of the best scenes ever written in cinema. Tarantino deserved that Oscar win without any contention that year, and in 2013 perhaps the Academy will redeem itself by giving the master of the screenplay a deserving win in the “Best Original Screenplay” category.

Genius casting, or an imminent disaster?

Leonardo DiCaprio may get a nod for “Best Supporting Actor” playing the villainous plantation owner, Calvin Candie, but it’s by no means a guarantee. I was convinced Matt Damon would be nominated for his heinous turn in Scorcese’s Departed, but maybe popular actors the audience and Academy see as heroic in most of their works can’t be fully embraced as villains (See: Tom Cruise in Collateral for instance). Leo’s nomination would be a stretch, but not an impossibility.

If Jamie once again shows us his serious side with unfathomable commitment to such a wounded character, he may see Oscar gold at the end of the tunnel. However, if Jamie Foxx shoots up baddies more than sobs and delivers monologues of pain and suffering, I doubt the Academy would throw him a nomination bone. As we discussed in an earlier Podcast episode, African-American actors are typically given movie’s most prestigious award nomination when their role involves some kind of suffering, with tears aplenty. However, Samuel L. Jackson’s god-fearing mobster in Pulp Fiction was nominated for none of those trademarks, so a nomination for Foxx isn’t too implausible.

Because of the commercial success of Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained could be a candidate for “Best Picture” if it makes waves with enough critics and audiences across the country. I’m not sure Inglorious Basterds, as great as it was, would have made the Top 10 nomination roster if it wasn’t such a bona fide blockbuster hit. Django Unchained must pull similar box office numbers if it wants to be in “Best Picture” contention when Oscar’s are announced next year. Critic approval is one thing, but if the Academy sees that Tarantino is connecting with the American viewing public, they will definitely award a film that would make people tune in to the Oscars. After last awards season’s outrage claiming that the Academy was apathetic towards critically praised films that made millions of dollars, I suspect the Academy will correct itself this year by not appearing to be such non-inclusive elitists.

Django Unchained releases December 25th, 2012 (Christmas Day), and is being distributed by The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Original Screenplay
Best Actor — Jamie Foxx
Best Supporting Actor — Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, or Don Johnson
Best Supporting Actress — Kerry Washington
Best Costume Design
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Editing