Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino wears his style on his sleeve. Homages, tributes, and callbacks to older films, forgotten performers, and oft-ignored genres are part and parcel of his filmography. But one element of his aesthetic has become more pronounced over the years: his fierce, almost laughable, dedication to being deliberate. If his films, or setpieces within them, are like a domino display, we’re invited to sit down, watch him set each and every one in the proper place, and then gather in awe as he topples the whole thing with a slight push. In that respect, Django Unchained, his florid and entertaining spaghetti Western, is very much of a piece with seemingly dissimilar works like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill.
Jamie Foxx, in subtle, career-best work, is Django, a slave marching in the middle of Texas in 1858 when, one night, his owners are stopped by a friendly German dentist (Christoph Waltz). This dentist, Dr. Schultz, turns out to be a bounty hunter in need of Django’s memory of three fearsome overseers named the Brittle brothers at his old plantation, so he can kill the men and collect the reward. Dr. Schultz agrees to set Django free as soon as the Brittles are brought to justice. When Django reveals that his sole objective post-freedom would be to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) after having been separated, Dr. Schultz is compelled to help. They run up against Broomhilda’s new master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), at his plantation Candieland, however; soon, the question is not if blood will be spilled, but when and how much.
In a pleasantly surprising way, Django Unchained is a fairly straightforward story of righteous vengeance, of a man done grievously wrong in a period where he normally wouldn’t get the chance to get payback. Even in Inglourious Basterds, another film in an apparent series that Tarantino could dub the Wishful Thinking In History saga, the goal of destroying the Nazis was slightly too spread out so that a number of characters portrayed by recognizable performers stood out as being distracting because they had nothing to do. Tarantino’s inherently sprawling sensibility doesn’t always pay off; Django Unchained is a bit less successful than Inglourious Basterds, almost precisely because he and editor Fred Raskin, taking the place of Tarantino’s frequent collaborator, the late Sally Menke, let some scenes play out too long. And there are a few scenes that simply have no place in the story. An early Monty Python-like bit with Don Johnson and, of all people, Jonah Hill as two would-be assassins bent on taking out Django and Dr. Schultz is funny in an absurdist sense. But it literally has no bearing on the rest of the film. As it stands, this is Tarantino’s longest film, at just about 165 minutes, yet it could’ve been shorter without anything serious being lost.
Though the main conflict between Django, Dr. Schultz, and Calvin doesn’t really kick in for over an hour, the strongest part of Django Unchained is the mentor-pupil relationship between Django and Dr. Schultz. Waltz has been one of the best finds in Western cinema over the last few years; he’s uniquely equipped to recite Tarantino’s self-consciously long-winded and overly flowery dialogue, and here, he has scads of it. Foxx, playing someone who ends up as fully realized and iconic as Jules Winnfield or Col. Hans Landa, is more internal, rarely letting Django’s emotions bubble to the surface. As Schultz puts it to Django, they have to play characters when visiting plantations in the South, so that their bounty-hunting motivations aren’t immediately apparent. In or out of character, Schultz gets to pontificate and talk his way around a situation, but Django has to keep cool always. DiCaprio, in his first purely villainous role, gets to be big, brash, and outrageous as Calvin, a vicious plantation owner who’s especially fond of what’s known as “mandingo fighting,” where certain slaves fight each other to the death for the pleasure of their white masters. Even when he’s over the top, DiCaprio is able to emphasize his character’s truly despicable nature. We may feel compelled to laugh out of sheer nervousness, but much of the violence in Django Unchained—and don’t you fret, there’s plenty of blood flying out—isn’t funny. It’s glorified, perhaps, but Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing the audience the horrors inherent in slavery at the time.
The rest of the massive ensemble cast is mostly quite good, including Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, the head of the Candie household and a suspicious confidant to his master. Jackson, hidden under some makeup but still familiar thanks to his booming, intense voice, has the most complex character to play, a man whose long years of service to white people has made him as complicit as they are in the way he treats the other servants and slaves at the plantation. Washington has less to do as the object of desire, certainly. However, even when she appears as a hallucinatory dream, the prize at the end of the journey for Django, Washington’s solid. Frankly, the only casting miscue in Django Unchained comes courtesy of Tarantino himself. He’s appeared in his own movies before, so it’s unsurprising that he shows up here. However, his short appearance, thanks to a truly baffling accent, is one of the most misguided directorial cameos this side of M. Night Shyamalan, distracting and painful to behold.
Whatever his faults are in front of the camera, Tarantino continues to know what he’s doing behind it. With longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson, he helps craft indelible and memorable imagery against a backdrop of old-fashioned Americana. Django and Dr. Schultz travel through snow, through deserts, and through the humid climes of the Deep South, all in eye-popping grandeur. More than a few times, Tarantino lets his style get the better of him, as in an intentionally grainy flashback to Django and Broomhilda as slaves at the same plantation. But his style never overwhelms the film to serious detriment.
Django Unchained may not be Quentin Tarantino’s best film, but it is proof that though he may like to fool around with cinematic conventions, he’s a capable hand at many genres. His films have had a touch of Sergio Leone for a long time, but in paying more direct homage, Tarantino creates something new. As with Inglourious Basterds, we’re watching vicariously as another scourge that rocked the Western world is brought to its knees with a vicious, unyielding “What if?” mentality. Despite being overlong, this gleefully gory, clever, and thrilling story is proof that Tarantino, his self-professed fears aside, has not weakened with age.
– Josh Spiegel