Review: Django Unchained

I have a complicated relationship with Quentin Tarantino. He is a craftsman with a pen and paper if ever there was one and his writing is impeccable. His love for film is widely known and while ostensibly all filmmakers share a passion for the film, Tarantino is one that stands out as true believer, as it were, one who needs the cinema the way most of us need air. And he is a master when it comes to crafting a scene. Even still, Tarantino does everything in an all-out, no holds barred, aggressive style that is, I believe, designed to run off those viewers who don’t love what they’re watching. There can be no fence-sitting with a Tarantino movie; either you love it and consider it a triumph or you find it vile and want nothing to do with it and I think that’s the point. He tends to push the envelope further and further as his film goes on and at some point you are presented with the choice to get on board or stay at the station. I was left at the station with Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill 1 & 2, and Jackie Brown and while I recognize its genius, I must admit that Pulp Fiction left me behind as well. His last film, Inglourious Basterds, is the only Tarantino film to date for which I can say I was fully on board for and it is the film I hold up as his best work. Django Unchained follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and comes dangerously close to “masterpiece” territory. A would-be escaped slave who is sold to a new master apart from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django (Jamie Foxx) has his fortunes reversed when he is acquired by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A bounty hunter by trade, Schultz proposes a deal: Django will lead him to and identify a group called the Brittle Brothers and in return, Schultz will give Django his freedom. After their partnership proves profitable, Schultz agrees to help Django find Broomhilda, a trail that leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio), a well-known slave owner who has made a name for himself by running Mandingo fights. Schultz and Django come up with a ruse to catch Candie’s notoriously fickle attention and soon find themselves in the belly of the beast at Candie’s plantation where they run afoul of aging and crotchety house servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), whose suspicion leads to great trouble.

The relationship between Django and Inglourious is obvious and one which, for my money, this film benefits from immensely. For all its war violence and Hitler killing, Inglorious is a subdued movie compared to Tarantino’s other works and that same spirit runs through Django and suites the Western (or “Southern” if you prefer) sensibilities quite well. Save for the first explosive bit of violence at the very beginning of the film, the majority of the film carries on in a relatively realistic manner, meaning it is filled with violence, language, and racial slurs and yet none of it seems out of place in the slightest. It’s a brutal world our characters live in and that is portrayed unconditionally (to the point of discomfort at times) but not, in my opinion, gratuitously through the first two hours. In fact I almost forgot at times that I was watching a Tarantino film as Django runs much closer to a Coen Brothers picture than anything else for a long stretch.

This illusion of subtle realism is shockingly and brutally brought to an end, however, in the film’s concluding act, in which our titular character engages in a gunfight that quite literally covers the walls in spilt blood. In retrospect, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a shock as this is a Tarantino film and it is, after all, a story of revenge. But in my mind, so much was done through the majority of the film’s runtime to present the action in a realistic way that when it suddenly erupted into an explosion of entry wounds, Monty Pyton-esque blood splatter, and over-the-top cries of death, I was distracted and a little put off. Personally, I think some of the prospective power of the scene (and those that follow) was lost in the blatant Tarantinoization of the violence that just didn’t quite fit the overall tone of the film. In this way, Django is reminiscent of last year’s Drive, a film that I would have considered perfect without the random scenes of hyper-violence that weren’t in keeping with the rest of the movie. It’s a minor complaint all-in-all but without them, I think I would proclaim Django as the best movie of the year. As it is, it’s only a slight downgrade.

Whatever complaints I or anyone else might have about Django, however, there can be no disputing the abject brilliance of the film’s many performances. Foxx embodies his character with a cocky flair that almost any other actor would have missed on. He manages to have a little fun with his role but never so much that the character loses his purpose. Moving forward, however, I will almost certainly remember Django more for the supporting work than for anything Foxx does. It is an absolute pleasure to watch Waltz at work in a role that is so very different from the Oscar award-winning turn in Inglourious that put him on the map in Hollywood and yet one that is just as strong. Schultz is a more layered character than anyone else in the film and Waltz illuminates each of those layers beautifully. Then there’s DiCaprio in a delicious role that had many of his fans salivating during the trailers. Candie is an odd, flighty sort of guy, personality traits which DiCaprio nails over and over again, and yet he has a hidden fire that allows DiCaprio to get worked up in a lather in that glorious way he does. Surely this is the role that wins him his first Oscar. Perhaps most surprising of all of Django’s many fantastic portrayals is the turn by Jackson that is undoubtedly the most significant role he’s taken on in a long, long time. The complexities of his character are immense and he manages to steal the show on many occasions. If all of this weren’t enough, you’ve also got truly enjoyable work from Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, and even Don Johnson. In a year filled with great ensemble casts, Django features what I would consider the best collection of performances of the year, all of which deserve attention.

When you combine all of these outstanding portrayals along with the tremendous writing, a host of gorgeous shots and locations, and a soundtrack that just might be Tarantino’s best yet, what you get in Django is an incredible movie going experience that remains only a step or two away from perfect.

Django Unchained Director: Quentin Tarantino Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson Rated: R (strong and continuous language, brutal violence, brief nudity, and general mature themes) Recommended For: 17 and up