Film Review: Django Unchained

Django Unchained is the latest from Quentin Tarantino and the results are what you expect with him; great performances, engrossing dialogue and a lot of stuff most people have never seen before.

Playing out right in the western genre this time, Tarantino takes us to a pre-Civil War South where we follow the exploits of a freed slave Django and his bounty hunting partner Dr. King Schultz. Schultz frees Django to hunt down his latest bounty and after doing such a great job in the part Dr. King sees a great opportunity for them both. Django needs to buy his wife’s freedom and Dr. Schultz could use a bounty hunting partner for the winter. They spend the winter increasing Django’s natural skills as a gunman all the while making their wallets fuller, but when the snow melts the two set off to get back Django’s wife from Calvin Candie at his plantation, Candie Land.

Breaking away from the chapter break structure of all of his previous films, Tarantino instead gives us Django’s tale straight on through and it’s got a little bit of everything for us. Django’s introduction to the world of bounty hunting leads to a winter of training and before you know it we are in Mississippi and are dealing with the very interesting Calvin Candie. Once things get to his plantation the film is just a slowly warming pot waiting to boil over before reaching a crescendo of spectacular mayhem and violence. An “explosion of violence” shouldn’t be considered spoiler in a Tarantino film, but I am shocked at how shocking he can still make said violence this many films in. Most of the violence is ridiculously over the top and meant to be “fun” but the most affective scenes are a pair of sequences centered around Candie that are borderline troubling and can be very hard to watch.

While violence in a Tarantino film is predictable I don’t think any of his plots ever felt as predictable as this one. Not that the predictability ruins the film in anyway, not the slightest, but there weren’t any of those great “holy shit” moments we have come to enjoy from most of his previous efforts. The film never stops entertaining and has more than a handful of classic scenes to add to Tarantino’s archive, but it feels like one of his lesser works. It all feels a tad incomplete, a bit haphazardly assembled and didn’t leave me absolutely floored like most of his previous efforts. Sadly, I feel like Tarantino is missing his former editor, Sally Menke, who passed away a couple years back. The film never seems to be able to hit that perfect pacing stride and while this might have been because they were rushing to finish the film you can’t help but imagine Menke’s loss isn’t having some effect over the film. The so called “fourth act” of the film in particular felt like it needed to have a bit more urgency to it, even with the tonal shift the film needs to perform around Django. Being a lesser work in Tarantino’s filmography still means this might be one of the best films of the year, but when Tarantino has such a high bar it is hard to not feel a smidge let down that he might have only knicked the bar with a couple of fingers. Don’t get me wrong, I will gladly sit through this movie again in a heart beat, but I think I need to see it a couple more times before I can firmly rank it among his other works.

But enough complaining, because this film isn’t worth complaining all that much about. There is a lot of great things going on in this picture that are far more memorable than a couple of lingering nitpicks. The film is as gorgeous as expected and Tarantino does a great job of recreating the era with his own little spin on it. Things also moves along and doesn’t leave one restless for almost the entire run time. The violence in the film is also brutally realized and is as graphic as anything in Tarantino’s previous repertoire. This might also contend for being the funniest film of the year when it is all said and done and I find it hard to believe that I will see anything funnier than a sequence involving a lot guys in masks. The film’s language might also be hard for some to take, the N word is everywhere, but Tarantino, as always, has a mastery with his characters’ tongues as you could listen to them talk for hours. Tarantino also does a great job of not flinching at history here and as much fun as he can have in the story, he never lets you forget the horrors of the times and the awfulness that this country perpetrated for far to long. The film’s greatest credit might be that it is able to remain so engrossing over a mere couple of conversations for the majority of the film’s back half. Once Candie shows up the film becomes more of a talky piece, but when you have four great actors all turning out some of their best stuff you can’t really complain.

Jamie Foxx is great as Django and he is able to capture the broad range of emotions the script asks of him. Quiet and confused as he wearily gets to know Schultz and the world of bounty hunting, vicious and reprehensible when he has to play a role for Candie and full of rage and anger when he unleashes his violence and vengeance on those that get in his way to happiness. Foxx is, mostly, quietly brilliant here and I think he will be overshadowed by the other powerhouses on display. Sam Jackson is the last character to show up on the scene, but he might be the most memorable. Playing the head house slave, Stephen, at Candie Land he is constantly hanging over Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie proving to be a wonderfully vulgar yes man. His best and most memorable work comes when he is going after Foxx and being as racist to him as anyone even though they are both cut from the same cloth. Jackson’s final moments in the film actually hint at a deeper layer to Stephen and I wish we would have gotten a bit more depth to him actually. We get glimpses of his two-faced nature around the house, but you will get what I mean when you see the film.

The last two of the big four are the aforementioned DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. I keep going back and forth about who I liked more in this picture but I think it might just have to be a tie. DiCaprio is new to Tarantino’s world and he fits right in. Candie is a similar character to Waltz’s Hans Landa who can be endlessly charming one moment and terrifying the next. I think you can argue DiCaprio is about as good as Waltz was in Inglourious Basterds, but Candie is most certainly a more vile creature than Hans Landa. DiCaprio wears Candie’s pride and anger just below the skin and gleefully roots on atrocities and acts that revolt everyone else. He is given a number of great scenes and DiCaprio has maybe only been better in The Aviator. Watch DiCaprio in particular in one scene where he legitimately cuts his hand and goes on acting, never breaking character for a second. Waltz on the other hand gets to make a complete 180 from Landa and play the hilarious grey area of a bounty hunter in Dr. King Schultz. Waltz can dominate a room as an actor and when he gets to play the smartest guy in the room it makes for an even more enjoyable performance. He has a great chemistry with Foxx and has most of the film’s best lines, but my only wish is that Schultz had a bit more motivation on a big decision he makes late in the game so it felt a bit more earned. That isn’t Waltz’s fault though and I can’t find a damn bad thing to say about him, again, under the direction of Tarantino. Kerry Washington plays Django’s wife and she does a fine and fragile job in her limited screen time. They’re are also a bunch of roles no bigger than a cameo or so and the likes of Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, James Remar, Walton Goggins, Frank Nero and Michael Parks all pop up along with a bunch of other familiar faces. I wonder how much of this movie was left on the cutting room floor actually with all the familiar faces that have no lines, though based on Tarantino’s history I doubt we ever get to see any of that material anyway.

Django Unchained is one of the most entertaining films of the year and another great entry for Tarantino. Jackson, Foxx, Waltz, and DiCaprio are all fantastic here and are the biggest reason you should seek out this picture. Beyond that you have another fantastic script, great action and an original story you can’t find anywhere outside a Tarantino picture. I am going to have to mull on this one and see it a couple more times before settling in on where it falls in Tarantino’s filmography, but regardless of that, this one is not to be missed.

Django Unchained is an A-

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