Directed by: Quentin Tarantino || Produced by: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone
Screenplay by: Quentin Tarantino || Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson
Music by: James Brown, 2Pac, RZA, Rick Ross et al. || Cinematography: Robert Richardson || Editing by: Fred Raskin || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 165 minutes
Quentin Tarantino’s latest adventure, another action-packed, revenge-fueled fantasy ballad, this time set in the pre-Civil War American South, is unfortunately one of the auteur’s lesser outings. That doesn’t mean Django Unchained is a subpar film or even a mediocre one, as this is still vintage Tarantino filmmaking. I suppose it goes to show how good a filmmaker he is that he can make better than average movies even on an off-day. However, it’s still a shame that Django misses its full potential, mostly due to a long-winded running-time and wasted dialogue.
As far as action-direction and general cinematography are concerned, Django’s location-shooting, musical selection, and on-screen carnage are as grand as any in the Quentin-filmography. Tarantino continues to make ample use of practical blood-squibs, fantastic lighting setups (especially during the high-key lit, outdoor set-pieces), and eclectic pop music. Whenever the blood is flowing, the 2pac music is pounding, and Jamie Foxx or Christoph Waltz are blasting away slave-owners, the film is endless fun.
That is also the main problem with this movie. Tarantino writes, stages, and coaches dialogue extraordinarily well, and has done so throughout most of his career. His well directed, acted, and written conversation-pieces are one of the most recognized and celebrated traits of his films. Furthermore, his stories are often meticulously crafted and, though often non-linear, are tightly edited and coherent. With Django, the story is neither straightforward nor particularly engaging. Foxx’s titular character has more than enough motivation, but how he and co-star Waltz go about slaying villainous Southerners and freeing the former’s captive wife is confusing, hackneyed, and takes too damned long. Whenever the action-scenes stop, the film stalls.
Another reason why this film feels less satisfying than Tarantino’s best adventures is that Christoph Waltz’s German bounty-hunter is a confusing and contradictory character. He despises slavery and shows visible remorse at the grisly deaths of several African-Americans, yet he also tells Jamie Foxx’s Django to stop “pussy-footing around” and shoot a wanted man in front of his own ten year-old son. Throughout much of the film, he appears cool and calculating, planning every move before he makes it, but then in a critical scene where he and Django are mere seconds away from securing the release of Django’s wife (and thus accomplishing the main goal of the entire film), he loses composure and murders the main antagonist (a great Leonardo DiCaprio) out of spite. This leads into the entertaining but overextended finale.
The saving grace of much of the film’s latter acts is the dual-villain dynamic between DiCaprio’s evil plantation owner and Samuel L. Jackson’s cold, calculating “Uncle Tom”-slave, Stephen. Whereas most films are content with a single bad guy, Tarantino copies the Star Wars (1977) formula by establishing a hierarchy of villainy. While DiCaprio is the yin to Waltz’s yang, Jackson functions as the principle opponent for Foxx’s protagonist, allowing him to grow and develop enough during the secondary finale to make the story’s extended conclusion worth it. Each villain represents the antithesis of their heroic rival: DiCaprio’s ignorant white-American slaver challenges Waltz’s white European progressivism, while Jackson’s conniving servitude mocks Foxx’s rebellion against the status quo. It is in fact Jackson’s Uncle Tom that seeks to return Django to his initial lowly status from the beginning of the film, not DiCaprio. This dynamic of dual villains and heroes is by far the strongest part of Tarantino’s script, and it’s what holds the story’s final act together.
I hold Tarantino to a high standard. After so many great movies, how could you not? At the end of the day, Django Unchained still has incredible action, an impeccable and diverse score, great performances, and excellent visuals that compliment the lush, thriving Southern landscape. The main problem is that the screenplay itself, while still decent compared to most other movies, is below the venerable Quentin Tarantino-standard. Django is a fun adventure, but not an amazing or unforgettable one, and that’s somewhat disappointing considering the juicy, edgy, very Tarantino-style premise.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Django Unchained is chock full of the vicious, gruesome action we’ve all grown to expect from Quentin Tarantino. The soundtrack is well selected, as per usual. The dual-villain structure of the screenplay is the best part of the narrative.
— However… Tarantino’s writing takes a surprising misstep. Many of the events in the story and the narrative’s slow pace are unnecessary, given the simple (yet outrageous) premise. Much of the dialogue fails to go anywhere, while Christoph Waltz’s abolitionist bounty-hunter feels nonsensical.
? The “D” is silent, hillbilly!