Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Released: December 25, 2012
Sara Michelle Fetters
Undisciplined Django Packs a Bloody Punch
There is a lot to love about writer/director Quentin Tarantinoís latest effort Django Unchained, so much so Iím not sure I can comment on it all in a single review. At the same time, though, there is almost nearly as much to complain about, the movie a lengthy, self-indulgent slog at times that feels like three films unceremoniously crammed into a single, 165-minute narrative. At times brilliant, at others risible, the movie had me doing emotional cartwheels for the duration of its running time, a fact not lost on me as I left the theatre after the screening.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained
© The Weinstein Company
The basics revolve around slave Django (Jamie Foxx). He has more or less freed been by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man who abhors slavery but isnít above using its indecencies to help him get what he desires. In this case, that is the Brittle Brothers, a trio of reprobates heís determined to get the bounty on but who he does not know, and as Django does heíll give the man his freedom if he in turns leads him to them.
From there the relationship between the two men expands. Schultz takes Django under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the bounty hunting trade, realizing immediately that his new compatriot and eventual friend is a natural. As their relationship grows, so does the formerís desire to assist the latter in his pursuit of discovering the whereabouts of his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the pair setting out to free her no matter what the cost.
This leads them to despicable Louisiana plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Heís got Broomhilda, and knowing he wonít be keen to get rid of her Django and Schultz go under cover as partners looking to get into the Mandigo fighting game in order to get into Candieís good graces. While their faÁade at first proves to be successful, house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), his masterís despicable right hand, quickly sees through their game, putting the pair of bounty hunters into a precarious position they might not be able to extricate themselves from.
Thereís obviously a lot going on, Tarantino setting the action just two years before the chaos of the Civil War hoping to intimately explore the disgusting smear slavery and its lineage left upon, and continues to haunt, the United States. Some of the violence is some of the most honestly savage the director has ever chosen to showcase, the weight and meaning behind it leaving an abhorrent aftertaste that stayed with me long after the film had ended.
And thatís a good thing. Tarantino has a flair for the sort of stuff, he always has, but in some ways the flippant stylistics integral to his narratives sometimes lessons the impact of much of the bloodshed and carnage. Not here. For once the filmmaker does not shy away, does not try to paint a rosy picture, doesnít allow for facetious sarcastic niceties where it comes to anything having to do with slavery. Itís hardcore and unflattering, the reactions of those taking in the sight of the inhuman carnage maybe more important than the on-screen depiction of it itself might ever have proven to be.
The bad thing is Tarantinoís insistence to stick to the Spaghetti Western esthetics of the genre heís throwing this story inside of. The cartoonish -- if with admittedly brilliant dialogue -- opening sequence, a silly aside involving a wannabe lynch mob arguing over their ill-fitting hoods, a latter moment between Django and three dimwitted captors; all of it doesnít seem or feel as necessary as it should. More, the bleakly comedic tone doesnít always fit the proceedings, throwing things off-kilter in a way that left me slightly annoyed.
It did not help that I often felt the director was letting things develop at too haphazard a pace. The story he was telling was nowhere near as epic as what Sergio Leone was going for in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, and as such a running time nearly equal to those two classics doesnít feel warranted. The lackadaisical nature of the pacing was a constant distraction, and I couldnít help but wonder when Tarantino was going to get on with it and finally get around to scraping to the meat and bone of his narrative.
He does so in Candyland, Calvinís so-called plantation where all sorts of delights can be found if the price to experience them can be brought forth. DiCaprio is as slimy and as smarmy a villain as any Tarantino has ever created, the actor twirling his lips around each syllable with a malevolent relish that made me continually shudder. He throws himself into the character completely, never once shying from his odious aspects, and as depictions of pure, unadulterated evil go this is one portrait that will be hanging in the pantheon of greats for quite some time.
Heís nothing, though, in comparison to Jacksonís Stephen. As acting triumphs go, this is one of 2012ís best, watching him navigate this manís complex waters as eerily unsettling as anything Iíve seen this year. Who Stephen is, why he has become the man he has, the reasons he is so willing to throw his own kind to the wolves and embrace the man who owns him as a brother, these are his and his alone, Jackson showcasing these internal machinations in a way that held be uncomfortably spellbound.
On the other side of the good and evil equation, Waltz is also terrific, giving the movie a pizazz and a chutzpah I cannot believe it ever would have had without him. His Dr. King Schultz is a revelation, a man with purpose and charm, and while his business is death his moral code is as unwavering as it is sacrosanct. When he gives Django his friendship, when he promises to help him free his beloved Broomhilda no matter what the cost, I believed it right at that instant, making the carnage to come all the more heart-wrenching because of that.
I could go on forever, discussing both sides of the Django Unchained coin, going into where I think his reverence for the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci pushed him into directions both right and wrong and the places where the movie soars intellectually but just as quickly comes up mentally stunted. The funny thing is, even with all its excess, even considering the places I think Tarantino goes too far (especially during the latter portions where a hero rises to exact his revenge) I do indeed like this movie.
Why? In some ways Iím not entirely sure. The performances are indeed excellent throughout, while the technical facets of the production are beyond reproach. Tarantinoís use of music, for the first time the majority of it, both songs and orchestral, original, is miraculous, while Robert Richardsonís (Hugo) cinematography is some of the most richly defined in all of 2012. I also appreciated that, for once, there is a larger meaning behind much of the violence depicted, the impact it has upon an audience undeniable.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained © The Weinstein Company
These facets help make Django Unchained a richly rewarding experience, too be sure, but its shortcomings and indulgences do dilute them to a certain extent. Tarantino has taken chances, that I cannot dispute, and I respect and admire many of the choices he made while bringing this film to life. I can recommend this effort, pretty much without reservation, but my feelings that it doesnít quite live up to its potential do remain.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: ÍÍÍ (out of 4)