Released today, December 25, 2012, “Django Unchained, is the latest masterpiece from the legendary director Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s immediate follow-up to the widely successful and critically acclaimed intentionally inaccurate and phenomenally entertaining Nazi-killing film, “Inglourious Basterds,” once again sees the unorthodox filmmaker tackle a controversial historical subject – this time American slavery.
Before reviewing the film, I need to first address one of the primary issues in reviewing Tarantino flicks – an issue that seems to overwhelm both critics and viewers alike. Quentin Tarantino makes Tarantino films. He has a unique style unparalleled by any other director and it features a few Tarantino trademarks that are either loved or hated by audiences.
First and foremost, Tarantino films revolve around dialogue – not violence or action – 1 – the dialogue. The banter in Tarantino’s films is without exception more important than the violence, in all of his movies viewers will spend significantly more time listening to the characters verbally cogitate than they do watching people get killed, injured, maimed or bloodied. There is no such thing as “excessive dialogue” in Tarantino’s films, there’s just dialogue, it’s crucial to the plot and it’s never going to get cut. That being said, violence is also a trademark Tarantino element – people are going to get killed, injured, maimed and bloodied, and there won’t be any CGI or cut-aways – Tarantino likes blood and he likes violence, so be prepared.
Second, Tarantino is the Hitchcock of our time – he is a master of suspense. In the age of overdone storylines, predictable conclusions and pre-fabricated conclusions, Tarantino introduces plot twists that you’ll never see coming. But you’ll have to wait for them. The beauty of Tarantino’s plots isn’t in the twists themselves, it’s in the knowledge that there will be a big twist…soon.
This leads to the last crucial element of a Tarantino film – some people will win, some people will lose, and a lot of people will die. Tarantino always provides a variation on a Hollywood ending – although the “good guy” usually gets to walk away, there will be twists and turns along the way you won’t expect. So don’t be surprised when some of your favorite characters don’t make it to the end of the movie – once again, there’s a sort of new-age Hitchcock similarity here.
So, if you aren’t a fan of the Tarantino style, skip the rest of the review, and by all means skip the film – you won’t like it. That being said, if you like the Tarantino style, you will absolutely love “Django Unchained,” it has Tarantino written all over it.
As would be expected, Tarantino doesn’t take on the sensitive topic of slavery in a reverend and grounded way – he creates his own version of a Spaghetti Western, and as was the case in “Inglourious Basterds,” he cares more about making a great movie than he does sticking with the facts. Tarantino drew inspiration from Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci, specifically from his extremely violent 1966 film, “Django,” which tells the story of a man hunting his wife’s killer in an effort to present the horrors of slavery with entertaining revenge fantasy irreverence.
Due to the fact that Tarantino was inspired by a film that was already quite violent, “Django” is unquestionably the most brutal film Quentin Tarantino has ever made, which is incredible. Unlike “Kill Bill” or “Inglourious Basterds,” where the violence only served as entertainment and carried a visceral thrill, the carnage here is often ugly and occasionally difficult to watch.
Furthermore, Tarantino doesn’t shy from coming in close to show you the gruesome details. For example, in one scene, two men are forced to fight each other to the death using only their hands, and as would be expected, it is horrifically and painfully violent. In another scene, a slave is ripped apart and killed by vicious dogs – a scene that is intentionally brutal, graphic, and difficult to watch.
However, the film contains enough captivating performances, smart set pieces, and humorous/brutal social commentary to be a thoroughly entertaining and brilliantly stylized nod to the spaghetti western genre.
Jamie Foxx stars as the eponymous hero – a slave purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), a loquacious and immensely likable German bounty hunter. Schultz recruits Django to help collect the bounty on the vicious (and especially hard-to-find) Brittle Brothers – promising to assist the former slave in a quest to rescue his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) from one of the wealthiest and most sadistic plantation owners in the deep south, Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Like many Tarantino films, “Django Unchained” mixes savage and violent confrontations with moments of light-hearted humor and sharp conversations between multifaceted characters – framed with stunning and striking imagery. The early interactions between Schultz and Django, where the Doctor helps the former slave adjust to life as a free man, keep things light, humorous, and extremely enjoyable until the audience is fully immersed in the horrors of the time period – most notably Candie’s enjoyment of slave-on-slave fights to the death.
Waltz is coming off of his last Tarantino role as Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds” – a role which rightfully won him the 2009 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – and once again Waltz steals the entire film spotlight, this time as the eccentric and amusing Schultz. The character is just as charming as Landa with the added benefit of being on the “right” side of history this time – hunting fugitives and punishing slave owners. Waltz owns the role and takes full advantage of the character’s razor sharp wit and eccentric mannerisms – relishing his exchanges with other characters, especially those with DiCaprio’s ruthless but silver-tongued Calvin Candie. Unlike Landa, Schultz is a tremendously layered character who maintains stone-faced and ruthless when killing criminals but immediately softens when faced with the real world horrors of slavery, and it’s rewarding to watch as Waltz’s character evolves.
DiCaprio, as expected, brings a captivating blend of charisma and malevolence to the equally eccentric, slave-owning Candie. He too is a complicated villain, brought to life by a great performance that fits nicely into Tarantino’s style: he brings back memories of Landa as well as Bill from the famous “Kill Bill series and Vincent Vega from the iconic Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction.” A truly ruthless and self-absorbed man who is quite comfortable with his unrelenting brutality and tyranny, Candie is further fleshed-out through his relationship with house slave, Stephen, played by the spectacular actor and frequent Tarantino partner, Samuel L. Jackson. Along with Jackson, there’s a number of recognizable stars that shine in smaller supporting roles, including Washington as Broomhilda, M. C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, Don Johnson as ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, and even a short but hysterical cameo from Jonah Hill.
As for Django himself, Foxx holds his own with the spectacular actors, Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson, and he doesn’t fall into the background despite the other characters’ scene-stealing personalities. Although Foxx certainly doesn’t seem like the best choice for the film’s lead, especially considering the enormous breadth of talent on the cast, Foxx perfectly portrays a subdued leading man with a sharp mind and a sharp tongue with an unexpected patience that makes him fascinating in the company of the exaggerated characters around him.
For all of the film’s great qualities, it has a few faults as well. Tarantino could have tightened the film up a bit – the story seems somewhat stillborn at times, in part due to the fact that the love story between Django and Broomhilda feels somewhat perfunctory at times. Furthermore, Tarantino works a cameo for himself that isn’t quite necessary and certainly goes on a bit longer than it should. Tarantino’s cameo seems even worse considering the fact that it comes at a time when the audience is sitting on the edge of their seats, fully-immersed in Django’s emotional story arc.
Furthermore, although the soundtrack is one of Tarantino’s greatest by far; there are a few moments towards the end where the music distracts from the action, most notably the James Brown/2Pac Shakur mashup “Unchained.” This is a minor fault of the film, which would be easily overlooked if the rest of the film’s sound had not been absolutely perfect. Rather than use songs that he’s comfortable with as is usually the case, Tarantino elected to sample a diverse range of eclectic music tracks to compliment the brilliant yet traditional film score including Luis Bacalov’s “Django” and the Rick Ross’s track, “100 Black Coffins”.
These small flaws don’t undercut the overall quality of “Django Unchained,” though they are more prominent due to the fact that Tarantino is working on a much more contentious and sensitive subject than he usually does. That being said, I don’t think it’s time for Tarantino to exercise restraint – one of the greatest aspects of Tarantino’s work is his unyielding desire to go full-throttle for every film, and I’ll gladly deal with a few minor hiccups if it means that Tarantino is unchained.