Successfully pays homage to its spaghetti western inspiration and disturbing source material with sharp performances, entertaining characters, as well as poignant violence.
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to the widely successful and critically acclaimed Nazi-killing business flick, Inglourious Basterds, once again sees the fan-favorite filmmaker take-on a controversial historical subject: this time American slavery.
Instead of tackling the sensitive topic as a reverent and grounded drama, the director (in typical Tarantino fashion) positioned his pre-abolition revenge flick as stylized genre fare – specifically a spaghetti western. Tarantino drew inspiration from Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci, especially his exceedingly violent 1966 film Django (about a man hunting his wife’s killer), in an effort to present the horrors of slavery with entertaining revenge fantasy irreverence. Does Tarantino successfully balance the intended historical insight with his usual stylistic influence and embellishment?
In spite of some exceptionally indulgent moments, Django Unchained is another sharp and enjoyable Tarantino effort. Fans of the filmmaker, as well as casual viewers who were drawn-in by Inglourious Basterds, will find plenty of the director’s trademark witty dialogue, quirky characters, as well as blood-splattering violence. Several thematic points are a little on-the-nose, even for a not-so-subtle writer like Tarantino, and a few unrestrained filmmaking choices distract from an otherwise immersive revenge tale. Still, while some moviegoers might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of story material in the 165-minute tale, or roll their eyes at an especially intrusive onscreen appearance by the director himself, Django Unchained contains enough captivating performances, smart setpieces, and humorous/brutal social commentary to be an agreeable (and stylized) nod to the spaghetti western genre.
Loosely inspired by the tale of lost love and revenge in Corbucci’s Django film (actor Franco Nero even has an Unchained cameo), Tarantino’s latest movie follows recently freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who joins with German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in the business of killing bad people for money. 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 dangerous plantation owners in the deep south, Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Like many Tarantino films, Django Unchained wallows in the joy of vengeance (especially in a blood-soaked third act). The story plays to the director’s strengths, mixing savage and violent altercations with moments of light-hearted humor and sharp conversations between multilayered characters – framed with 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 until the audience is fully immersed in the horrors of the time period – most notably Candie’s enjoyment of Mandingo-like slave-on-slave fighting.
Waltz, coming off of his last Tarantino role as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (which won him the 2009 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), once again steals the entire film spotlight as Schultz. The character is just as charming with the added benefit of being on the “right” side of history this time, hunting fugitives and punishing slave owners. Waltz relishes in the role and benefits from several great exchanges – especially when paired against DiCaprio’s ruthless but silver-tongued Calvin Candie. Unlike Landa, Schultz isn’t just a survivalist, he softens when faced with the real world horrors of slavery, and it’s rewarding to watch as Waltz evolves the character accordingly.
DiCaprio, as expected, brings a captivating blend of charisma and malevolence to slave-owning Candie. He’s a complicated villain, brought to life by a great performance, that will be right at home with similar Tarantino creations: the aforementioned Landa as well as Bill (the Kill Bill series) and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction), among others. A ruthless and self-absorbed man, complacent in his tyranny, Candie is further fleshed-out through his relationship with house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a character that Django views as the most contemptible villain in the movie. Along with Jackson, there’s a host of recognizable stars that shine in smaller support roles (including Washington as Broomhilda, M. C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, and even Don Johnson as ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett).
As for Django himself, Foxx is a welcome touchstone to Waltz and DiCaprio’s scene-stealing personalities – a quiet and attentive player that grows in confidence and effectiveness throughout the events of the plot. Unsurprisingly, the celebrated comedy (In Living Color, Horrible Bosses) and drama (Ray, Dreamgirls) veteran finds use for both talents as Django – resulting in loads of humorous as well as exciting altercations. Some moviegoers might criticize Foxx for a subdued leading man performance but there’s a smart subtlety and patience to Django that makes him fascinating – especially considering the amount of extravagant supporting players in the film.
However, despite its overall success, Django Unchained is easily one of Tarantino’s most unbalanced films – as the narrative often lingers on scenes that don’t carry much weight in the larger storyline – while moments that should carry strong emotional punch come up short. It’s an enjoyable but very self-indulgent production that could have been a lot tighter (and more focused) had Tarantino shown a bit more restraint. Fans of the filmmaker will defend Tarantino for sticking to his vision, even after Harvey Weinstein suggested splitting the movie into two parts, but casual viewers may find certain Django Unchained scenes to be rambling, drawn-out, and without worthwhile payoff – given their respective time investment in the larger (and lengthy) plot.
Similarly, in his effort to marry the Django storyline with his usual brand of style and flair, Tarantino may have swung a bit too-far-afield this round. As mentioned earlier, his cameo is downright distracting, especially at a time in the film when audiences should be fully-immersed in Django’s emotional story arc. Additionally, the director is often celebrated for using a diverse sample of eclectic music tracks to compliment a traditional film score and while there are several great pairings this round (Luis Bacalov’s “Django” and the Rick Ross track, “100 Black Coffins”), there are also a few complete misfires that, instead of punctuating the onscreen action, actually break any intended immersion (most notably the placement of a James Brown/Tupac Shakur mashup “Unchained [The Payback / Untouchable]“).
On their own, these small hiccups don’t undercut the overall quality of Django Unchained; however, now that the director is tackling larger (and more contentious) subject matter, it may be time for him to show increased restraint when it comes to implementing trademark cameos and his music sensibilities (among other recurring Tarantino mainstays). This round, some long-standing Tarantino filmmaking staples actually lesson the impact of a few important story beats – putting the director in the spotlight, not the onscreen drama.
Django Unchained is an intriguing mix of mass-market appeal that Tarantino enjoyed with Inglourious Basterds and playful/unrestrained storytelling that, with Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, first made him a fan-favorite filmmaker. As a result, there’s a disconnect in Tarantino’s latest offering that sometimes weakens the overall strength of the story. That said, any minor missteps aren’t enough to entirely distract from the unique Django Unchained experience – which successfully pays homage to its spaghetti western inspiration and disturbing source material with sharp performances, entertaining characters, as well as poignant violence.
If you’re still on the fence about Django Unchained, check out the trailer below:
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Django Unchained is Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. Now playing in theaters.