Film Review: Django Unchained (2012)
As one of 2012’s most anticipated films, Quentin Tarantino’s latest piece of cinema Django Unchained hardly disappoints. In fact, many claim it is his most accomplished and entertaining work to date, which is certainly saying something from the man who has made such classics as Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Ficiton (1994), and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Kill Bill (2003-2004). With this film, he has finally made his spaghetti western, though like any of his movies it does not simply conform to the genre and all of its trappings; it is also a rather hilarious dark comedy, tense revenge tale, and even a thought-provoking period piece. Viewers may debate where it stands amongst Tarantino’s filmography, but Django Unchained is definitely one of the top films of 2012 – it is an audacious piece of exhilarating cinema, one that is certainly not for everyone due to intense violence and prolific profanity (though its gratuitousness is sharply meaningful, to an extent, in shedding light on a dark part of the American history).
The story occurs just a couple years before the beginning of the Civil War as a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz tracks down and frees Django. Schultz needs him to identify three criminals he has been hunting, but their working relationship does not stop there; they partner up for the duration of the winter to hunt for several bounties. Once spring arrives, Schultz makes good on his deal to help Django find and free Django’s wife, Broomhilda. Eventually they discover she is a house slave in “Candie-land” – the nickname of the vast plantation owned by the colorful but vicious slave owner Calvin J. Candie. Scultz and Django devise an elaborate ruse to good in Candie’s good graces so they may be invited to his plantation and “meet” and free Broomhilda.
Before going into what makes the film so entertaining and interesting, a note of criticism should be addressed regarding the plot. Some have pointed out that Schultz and Django’s plan is too complicated; they ask, why not just approach Candie with an absurd offer for Broomhilda instead of being sneaky about it? To be fair, as Tarantino himself said, this plan fits each character in that Schultz is very theatrical and Candie may not have played along without the theatrics either – Tarantino addressed this issue after one critic called him out on the issue, which can be read here, and concedes the critic may have a point but sticks to his guns (no pun intended). Nevertheless, the plan is quite amusing, but when the entire plot hinges upon a squeaky point, some viewers may take issue with it.
Furthermore, several critics and viewers have also indicated a slight pacing issue in the narrative. At a lengthy 165-minute (2 hours, 45 minute) runtime, the film contains some fatty areas that could have been trimmed for an even tighter story, though many people believe this is Tarantino’s most focused film to date (perhaps they’re right in the straightforward narrative sense but Reservoir probably takes the cake as tightest, everything considered). Two particular portions of the story stand out as slightly excessive: the middle-third after Schultz and Django meet and begin traveling into Candie-land and the uneven third act. While every bit of the film is endlessly entertaining, these stretches either drag out the plot or feel tacked-on. In particular, the scene in which Tarantino himself makes a short, explosive appearance is a wedge in the narrative thrust that sucks some of the momentum out of the story and what follows feels less gloriously fulfilling, even if it is pretty awesome.
Nonetheless, these relatively minor issues aside, Django Unchained delivers everything one would expect from a Tarantino film and then some. It is action-packed and outrageously violent, especially given the movie’s spaghetti western roots/inspiration. Moreover, Tarantino shows he is still great at making such violence so excessive or absurd at times that it becomes hilarious, such as the infamous scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character accidentally shoots another character in the backseat (seen here) – indeed, there are many similar instances of this darkly hilarity happening in Django, especially in the wild shootout at the end of the second act. In addition to the fierce action, Tarantino comes through once again with another sharp and witty script worthy of awards recognition.
Of course, the script and violence are hot-button issues with regard to this film or any Tarantino movie. In this case, the film unabashedly uses the N-word hundreds of times, and the gore is quite excessive. Sure, it is amusing but viewers must remember to take a step back from laughing at the insane amount of blood to recognize yes it is gratuitous (perhaps that is why it is humorous) and also realize the meaning behind making it so extreme – here, both the language and violence may be exaggerated in order to illustrate the nastiness and brutality of the Old South, though Tarantino and others may argue the reality was far worse. Still, the issue of excess is always worth mentioning when covering a Tarantino film, and with Django Unchained it is hardly different; in fact, it is perhaps his wildest, most exploitative feature to date, right up there with Kill Bill. Nevertheless, those going to see this movie likely know what they are getting into and will enjoy all of its indulgence and find the film awesome regardless.
Indeed, it is, as expected, a first-rate production with remarkable technical detail. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is gorgeous, particularly the beautiful vista/landscape shots. The production design, art direction, makeup and costumes are likewise excellent. Also, Tarantino’s eclectic, offbeat soundtrack is quite enjoyable, even if it is not his most memorable one; it splendidly uses old western themes throughout (only one jarring song was the inclusion of a rap song about midway through). Perhaps not having his usual editor Sally Menke, who died in 2010, complicated the pacing issues a bit, though Fred Raskin who served as an additional or assistant editor on other Tarantino films (and main editor on other movies), is quite capable and especially shows off his editing talents in the tense scenes in the Candie big house. Overall, the technical aspects of this film are top-notch and help make it all the more cinematic.
At the core of the film, as is the case in every great Tarantino movie, is a set of incredible performances leading performances. Although Jamie Foxx may not have been everyone’s top choice to play Django, he inhabits the role nearly perfectly; after seeing the movie, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing him. Christoph Waltz has yet to find firm footing in Hollywood after his first Tarantino collaboration, the amazing Inglorious Basterds (2009), but his reunion with the director is a welcome one to say the least – Waltz is an absolute joy as Schultz, who is very much like Col. Hans Landa except that the former is “good” and not evil and completely opportunistic, apart from the nasty bounty hunting profession; this is evidenced by his Schultz’s surprisingly traditional character arc and disbelief/repugnance in slavery.
Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio in a role we have never seen before: the villainous one – he is astonishingly great as Candie, exuding both the fantastic flamboyance and the intense darkness of the character. He is certain to garner a supporting actor nomination, though winning is up for debate given the crowded competition; however, this is arguably his best performance to date. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson has not been this great in years; he is perfect and steals the show as head slave/Candie’s right-hand man Stephen, who is perhaps the vilest character of them all. Furthermore, DiCaprio and Jackson’s chemistry is wonderful; their banter is some of the best in any of Tarantino’s movies (i.e. the hilarious / dark dinner scene where Stephen repeats everything Candie says).
The ensemble cast and many cameos also add to the film and viewer’s pleasure. Kerry Washington is very good as Broomhilda, though her character only has so much to work with in the damsel in distress role. Walton Goggins is dependably despicable as Billy Crash, one of Candie’s thugs. Dennis Christopher is pretty funny as Candie’s quirky, lap dog-like lawyer Leonide Moguy. Laura Cayouette turns in a serviceable performance as the “nice” yet repulsive sister Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (repulsive in the sense of enabling and carrying out the slavery). Don Johnson has an amusing part as “Big Daddy,” another plantation owner. Recognizable faces and character actors James Russo, M.C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, Nichole Galicia, and James Remar all make solid turns in their respective roles. Even Franco Nero – the “original” Django in the 1966 western Django, which has an entirely different plot – makes an extended cameo appearance as the “Bar Patron” and Candie’s Mandingo fight competitor. Lastly, as referred to before, Tarantino makes an appearance as well as one of the Lequint Dickey Mining Co. employees; his appearance is distracting more than anything (at least for those who recognize him), especially given his characters (weakly executed) Aussie accent.
In the two decades of feature-filmmaking, Tarantino has thrust himself amongst the cream of the crop despite only making eight features, this one included. Django Unchained is yet another rousing love-letter to cinema with countless homages. Tarantino has mentioned that Django Unchained is the second in an unofficial trilogy of sorts, along with the similarly revisionist-themed Inglorious Basterds (which I somewhat preferred); if that is the case, then he has made a solid middle-entry. It is hilarious at times, action-packed, extremely well-acted and crafted, and
Django Unchained – 9/10