Django Unchained - ***
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
Review: As a director Quentin Tarantino has made his living with movies about other movies. Not in the ‘Scream’ sense where a movie is cutesily aware of itself, but movies that take a genre, dive in, bath in it, relish it, and make no apologies. Tarantino uses many things that were invented and used long before he arrived in films, but as with many things it’s not necessarily the tool but the craftsman. You can copy somebody else so long as the execution is as good if not better. That is where Tarantino excels.
‘Django Unchained’ takes many of the former genre’s he has delved into and mashes them together with a new trick up his sleeve to turn this into one of the most entertaining, if not slightly flawed films of the year. The exploitation of ‘Jackie Brown’ and the loose historical context of ‘Inglorious Basterds’ are glued together with a Kill-Bill-Homage-to-Kurosawa like rendition of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.
The opening scene is nearly taken straight out of ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ and he makes no qualms about the movies he will borrow from. It also serves to let the audience know that while this movie has a distinctly Tarantino feel to it, there will be no punches pulled. This is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended. Then again, Tarantino didn’t make a name for himself playing by the rules.
As a slave Django is released and partners with a German bounty hunter who has left a former life as a dentist to become someone very good at what he does. How or why he left the profession for one seemingly unbefitting an educated man of his nature isn’t discussed. How someone who no doubt spent most of his life in school studying suddenly became an expert marksman using the crude weaponry of the 1850’s is also never brought into question. As Leone and his predecessors did before him, the “mystery man” angle with no backstory other than to exist and be very good at what he does is used here and quite effectively.
Christoph Waltz gives yet another mesmerizing performance under the tutelage of Tarantino. What starts as a slightly different “good” version of his ‘Inglorious Basterds’ character Hans Landa becomes something altogether unique when he goes toe-to-toe with some of the other great actors on board.
The main foil of Waltz’ character comes in the form of an incredible Leonardo DiCaprio performance that brings out the best in those around him, but is a character and plot point that ultimately leads to the flaws of the film
As Calvin Candie, DiCaprio’s plantation owner has come into the possession of Django’s wife Broomhilda. Of Course, Django and Waltz’ character have come to Candie’s plantation “Candie-land” to try to get her back. They cook up a scheme and hope that everything goes smooth. If you’ve seen any Tarantino movie before, you can guess how that goes.
The problem here is that once they reach “Candie-land” the film begins to meander. It crosses over itself not sure if it’s trying to be the revenge tale, the tragedy, or the fairy-tale rescue. Making matters even more complicated for the audience, Tarantino inexplicably leaves out a key part in the story. As the entire impetus behind the film revolves around getting Broomhilda back, he gives us nothing about her.
Django has several flashback scenes showing how awful his wife was treated. He constantly has visions of her and is obviously in love. The only problem is we have no idea why. Perhaps such a reality would be more effective if Broomhilda was left to be discovered until the last frame, but such is not the case. With her being introduced as a character nearly halfway through the movie, giving us no insight into her character or any clues as to what makes her worth such troubles is perplexing.^
^If we are to assume that she is great because Django loves her so much then I suppose that is all well and good, but a little more narrative consistency would be nice. Take ‘Gladiator’ for example: Maximus’ wife was never really shown all that much beyond a couple flashbacks. But Gladiator was a straight-up revenge tale. With the structure of that movie, the emperor coming onto his land, setting it on fire, and killing his wife and child is justification enough to do what he does. But with Broomhilda still alive and treated no worse than many other slaves of that time, there is no revenge, only rescue. The movie even alludes to a German fairy tale about a princess Broomhilda. But like the fairy tale, what’s left out is what makes her so special to move Heaven and Earth to get her back. That ma make work in children’s tales but in a film with such narrative weight it’s an error that’s usually not made by the sure-handed Tarantino.
While trying to rescue Broomhilda, DiCaprio is keen to chew up scenery and be damn good at it, but our characters mill about with not much of a clue on how to move the story forward. What we’ve come to expect from Tarantino is a deft eye for plot and structure. More often than that every single item or event generally has a purpose for the story. For some reason here we are left with a film that loses narrative focus for nearly 30-40 minutes of its slightly excessive two hours and forty five minute run time. If not for the name of this director, ‘Django Unchained’ might have been 30 minutes shorter.
Now, all of that being said this is not to say that I did not like this film, because I very much did. Even still it was impossible to not point out the flaws that keep the film from being in the upper echelon of Tarantino films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds.’
With the possible exception of Foxx who can be flat at times, the performances all around were excellent. DiCaprio goes head-to-head with Waltz and holds his own if not surpasses him. It’s a performance that could only be conjured up in the mind of Tarantino and brought to life by his hand. Waltz gets to play the good guy for a change and while he starts out with the vibe of a character we feel like we’ve seen before he turns into something greater giving his own slight nuance the performance. Samuel L. Jackson plays a role seemingly transported from other Tarantino movie into this one but it oddly fits and he nearly steals the show.
The film is filled with incredibly violent scenes of both gunplay/murder as well as horrible treatment of slaves. Tarantino is no stranger to crossing lines and most know what they’re getting into as audience members but I still saw many covering up and turning away. Fortunately for many Tarantino does what he does best and presents it all with the weight necessary but just enough tongue-in-cheek to keep us abreast of the fact that we’re in a movie. If many other filmmakers tried such subject matter it would be a much too heavy movie that would probably fall flat. It’s a testament to the ability of the filmmakers to have made the film that they did.
If nothing else Tarantino is incredibly valuable to the film world as a director who constantly challenges himself and the perceptions of those around him. He doesn’t pigeon-hole himself into a genre even if we all try to. He stretches the boundaries of what he can do and what’s acceptable. In the process he challenges us to look at what it is we love about movies and discover it again and again.
Despite the slight failings the film still finds itself amongst one of the year's best. From a technical standpoint it is what you’ve come to expect from Tarantino. The acting is top notch and due the skill of the filmmakers it remains entertaining even with its unrelenting brutality. You may not find yourself jumping for joy at ‘Django Unchained’ but you will find yourself with a satisfying movie-going experience.
This movie is worth your time.