A film review by Craig J. Koban December 31, 2012

DJANGO UNCHAINED jjj

2012, R, 165 mins.

Jamie Foxx: Django / Christoph Waltz: Dr. King Schultz / Leonardo DiCaprio: Calvin Candie / Kerry Washington: Broomhilda / Samuel L. Jackson: Stephen / Don Johnson: Big Daddy / Walton Goggins: Billy Crash / Jonah Hill: Bag Head No. 2 / Quentin Tarantino: Mine Company Employee / Franco Nero: Bar Patron

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s sinfully titled DJANGO UNCHAINED – partially inspired by the 1966 film DJANGO starring Franco Nero - is his eighth picture and first one involving him delving into the western.  Yet, despite this being his first flirtation with a whole new genre, DJANGO UNCHAINED contains a certain aura of nagging familiarity to it that holds it back from greatness and stunts it from being considered among the filmmaker’s truly best works.  

The film dives headfirst into its setting of the pre-Civil War-era Deep South and themes of slavery (the oftentimes chatty director has labeled his film as a “southern” and not a western).  Alas, by tapping yet again into his love of 1970’s blaxploition and, more specifically, spaghetti westerns, DJANGO UNCHAINED seems to have too much of a been-there, done-that tonality, which usually is a flaw that has not permeated Tarantino's previous lauded films. 

At least the settings of this film are unlike anything Tarantino has dealt with before.  It opens to the sun-drenched terrain of Texas in 1858 where we are introduced to a slave named Django (the “D” is silent, played by Jamie Foxx), who is being transported in a chain gang of other slaves overruled by the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo).  One evening a – yup – German dentist-turned-bounty hunter named King Schultz (the wonderful Christoph Waltz, whom Tarantino directed to an Oscar in their last collaboration, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) stops the party and politely makes an offer to buy a particular slave they have, which just happens to be Django.  The brothers don’t seem interested in selling, and after some verbal and gun barreled threats from them, Schultz shoots them both dead with his limitlessly quick draw trigger fingers.  

Schultz frees Django, much to his surprise, but he has no desire to keep him as his own slave (he despises the institution).  He has other ulterior motives, seeing as he believes that Django could identify the Brittle Brothers (whom are next on his bounty list).  Django agrees to the task, but on a few conditions: He will help Schultz and become his partner, but only if Schultz helps him find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a brutal and cunning plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, as you’ve never seen him before) whose plantation is infamously called – ahem – “Candieland”.  Schultz and Django enter into a partnership and the former begins to teach the latter in the fine art of bounty hunting.  The team has a rather profitable winter, after which time they decide to infiltrate Candie’s mansion and save Broomhilda from his vile clutches. 

 

 

Tarantino has always been reputable for his crackling and razor sharp dialogue, which seems to have taken a bit of a back seat this go around.  This may or may not have something to do with the limitations of the time period he’s placed his characters in;  it’s hard to have colorful pop culture laced diatribes and exchanges before modern pop culture has existed.  That’s not to say, though, the auteur’s voice cannot be heard through the characters; it’s just a bit more muted.  One thing that DJANGO UNCHAINED does not miss is Tarantino’s giddy love of all things cinema, as visual, musical, and stylistic references to movies of yesteryear typifies every pore of the film.  From the opening old school and retro look of the 80’s-esque Columbia Pictures logo, to the 1970’s title cards, and to the snappy score that echoes the greatest works of an Ennio Morricone and modern day pop and rap artists, DJANGO UNCHAINED's stew of divergent cinematic influences is a delight to behold.  As with just about all of his past films, Tarantino is in total command of his element here. 

He also always manages to bring out the very best in his eclectic casts, and DJANGO UNCHAINED is no exception.  His feisty and verbose dialogue perhaps never rolls off the tongue of any other actor with better refinement than it does with Waltz, who appears to be his new go-top performer.  Waltz, who has got charm up the ying yang, has a manner of stealing films away from his cast mates with his meticulous inflections, crafty charisma, low-key intensity, and infectious spirit.  Jamie Foxx, as a direct and unfortunate result, seems to wallow in Watlz's magnetic screen presence a bit too much in the film playing his role with a subdued and calm edge, which I guess is fitting.  Nonetheless, Django is perhaps so quietly tenacious and emotionally internalized through much of the film that he often feels more like an undeveloped character.  

Two performances stand out outside of Waltz, one of which would definitely be DiCaprio’s highly atypical turn as an n-word-bomb uttering monster that has the outward appearance of a southern gentleman that’s, deep down, a viscous and hot-tempered figure of racial hate.  He has never played such a totally loathsome individual.  Perhaps even more intriguing is his right hand man, a house slave named Stephen, played by Tarantino alumni Samuel L. Jackson with the actor’s penchant for creative vulgarity that borders on sick poetry.  Stephen may seem like an obligatory and stereotypical house slave/servant to Candie’s every wish, but there’s a buried psychological complexity to him that makes him almost as evil as his boss. 

Despite all of its admirable qualities, DJANGO UNCHAINED seems more undisciplined as far as scripting and pacing goes for Tarantino.  Gone is his long-time editor Sally Menke here, and at times it really shows during the course of this overly bloated 165 minute feature.  There are instances when the film gets bogged down in superfluous non-sequitur scenes that – amusing on there own as they may be – could have been trimmed out altogether (see Jonah Hill’s cameo as a KKK member that hates his headwear because he can't see though the tiny eye holes).  The narrative drive here lacks a propulsive energy that we usually get from other long Tarantino works, which consequently leaves the story feeling too scattershot for its own good (it seems to take literally forever to get to the climatic standoffs in Candie’s mansion, which gave the film the hypodermic needle to the heart it certainly required by this point).  Then we get a late-breaking cameo by Tarantino himself as an Australian slave wrangler that has the director providing an inordinately bad attempt at an accent that’s hellishly distracting.  Quentin: please stay behind the camera in your films. 

There are two main controversies that have been stewing about the film, one of which is rubbish, but the other that contains some legitimacy.   Firstly, the dreaded n-word is used to ear-punishing levels here, which has caused many bloggers to chastise the film, perhaps without considering that hateful words and speech were indeed a damning part and legacy of the historical times that Tarantino is trying to relay.  On the other hand, I do agree with the sentiments that DJANGO UNCHAINED takes the dicey subject of slavery and the horrendous crime against humanity that it was and reduces it to a plot point in a teeth and fist clenched revenge exploitation picture.  Considering the inherent repulsiveness of slavery, DJANGO UNCHAINED offers very little in terms of compelling commentary on it.  Spike Lee has come to criticize the film on Twitter by tweeting “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.”  I’m inclined to partially agree with him there.  I don’t believe that Tarantino, in his heart of hearts, is trying to subvert slavery and/or portray this American historical disease as anything but awful, but there are times in the film when it becomes hard to disseminate whether he’s admonishing it or getting positively swept away in using it to exploit the story's blood-drenched purposes.  

DJANGO UNCHAINED may have a bit of an unsavory edge because of all of this, but there’s no denying Tarantino’s talent here for crafting an unwholesomely and madly entertaining film.  The film is fearlessly written and directed, audaciously realized, wondrously acted, and essentially works as a skillfully envisioned pastiche of pulpy exploitation and western pictures.  Yet, Mr. Tarantino, there’s something that I would implore upon you for your next venture.  You have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that you adore these genres that you’ve grown up idolizing.  Films, like DEATH PROOF, KILL BILL, and now DJANGO UNCHAINED have proved just that.  Perhaps it’s time to give us something different.  Maybe a romcom or a sci-fi film with a Tarantino-ian slant?  Just think about the possibilities.  

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