Django Unchained Review
There’s a very particular reason why Tarantino feature films resonate with people. Unlike many major directors today, Quentin Tarantino is a bonafide movie addict. He loves the visual medium like a sugar addict loves narrowly avoiding Type 2 Diabetes. The cinema is central to the former video-store clerk’s being, and one of the greatest strengths of his films is the way that cinephile love seeps into every frame. Recalled visual cues, recognizable throw-away lines, and nods to more obscure cinema are thrown into the mix of what is almost always a nonlinear original tale with a lot of flair. This is a director that humbly understands his roots, but opts for clever homage over derivative plagiarism. In that vein, he’s crafted another nontraditional revenge flick, but has framed it as a Macaroni Western with elements of an offbeat comedy. The result is a brilliant gunslinger feature film with plenty of blood, mayhem, and attitude.
Django Unchained begins in 1858, two years before the American Civil War, and chronicles the bloody post-slave life of Django Freeman (the “D” is silent). When we first see Django (Jamie Foxx), he and a handful of other slaves are being transported across the country by a pair of traders. Their travels are cut short by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and current bounty hunter who isn’t a fan of slavery. After an exciting and visually entertaining sequence, Schultz frees Django and reveals that he sought him out in order to identify a band of ruthless killers with a bounty on their heads. In exchange for helping to locate this band of miscreants, Schultz agrees to free Django from slavery, give him $75 (just over $1900, by today’s standards), and provide him a horse. After successfully tracking and killing the targets, the two soon become business partners. A profitable winter full of dead bodies and heroic montage sequences lead to a change in motive, with Schultz becoming interested in helping Django locate and free his long lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). This leads to an infiltration mission into Mississippi’s largest plantation “Candieland,” and an intellectual head-to-head with the mansion’s master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and personal slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Tarantino manages to capitalize on the talents of the many actors attached to this flick. Jamie Foxx, while a strong actor with a flair for the dramatic, hasn’t actually been given this meaty of a role since 2004’s Ray. With Django, he finally has a character that he can both emote and have fun with. I doubt any other actor could have realistically flourished in this kind of role. The perpetually underrated Christoph Waltz pulls off another brilliant performance as Schultz and the warm, unconventional chemistry between his character and Foxx’s is both palpable and memorable. Leonardo DICaprio demonstrates his versatility as both a supporting actor and villain as the loathsome Calvin Candie, and everything from his body language to his mannerisms falls in perfect alignment with his character. There are also a number of notable and impressive cameos from actors you both would and would not expect in a Tarantino flick.
That said, not everyone pulls off a stellar performance. Samuel L. Jackson, trapped under a mountain of prosthesis and fat makeup, still acts like he’s fighting snakes on a plane and only offers a few moments where his approach meets his character. Kerry Washington on the other hand offers a stunted and wooden performance as Django’s love interest. Sure, she’s a damn pretty lady, but based on the way she’s presented I’m not sure why he’s going through such lengths to save her. Finally, Tarantino again tries his hand at acting to mixed results. Personally, I’d prefer that he stay behind the camera, but his performance isn’t poor enough to really hinder the film.
Like most of Tarantino’s work, it’s hard to predict where the plot of Django Unchained will go while you watch. This on-edge approach to narrative delivery is one of the film’s greatest strengths as the audience can never be sure who is about to die and how sequences will play out. That said, it’s not like any part of this Macaroni Western is traditional. Tarantino breaks free of genre staples and twists the narrative’s scope into that of a humourous blacksploitation flick. The film respects black history enough to gently handle the setting’s context without any particular slant, but it also brilliantly takes advantage of it for narrative and comedic purposes.
While pompous fools like Spike Lee will object to this films existence out of pretense, I can comfortably state that it is worth your adoration. The editing, cinematography, and visual effects are downright brilliant, making Django Unchained Tarantino’s best looking film. The musical score and sound mix align perfectly with the pulpy feel of flick and the performances are, for the most part, quite impressive. The flick’s unbridled lust for blood, violence, and mayhem may not be to everyone’s taste, but you’ll have a great ride with this flick providing you’re already a fan of this director’s work. Seeing this stylish action romp should be a no brainer, as it is easily the only truly great film in theatres at the moment, but if you really needed an endorsement I hope mine was adequate.