Title: Django Unchained
Genre(s): Action, Drama, Western
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Quentin Tarantino’s career has thus far been one punctuated by numerous highs and very few noticeable lows; a man who has seemingly never struggled to get what he wants in the industry he so enthusiastically inhabits. Some will call him a genius in the way he essentially makes new tapestries out of old, cherished rugs, while others will categorize him as a spoiled brat whose prestige and success have clouded his ability to conjure up anything fresh. Whatever the stance, it’s safe to say that Tarantino films have a certain style to them, running through nearly every technical facet and often resulting in characteristically old-school and exploitative ingredients coming together as a more polished and professional piece; 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, a tale of personal and cultural retribution or vendetta, showcased a concise balance of excess and weight and illustrated a slightly more mature auteur behind the camera. Why is it then that Django Unchained, the latest taboo-laden vehicle from this self-professed exploitation film enthusiast, feel like such an ultimately minor and undistinguished work, despite its unquestionably entertaining moments and sequences?
Taking place in 1858 in the sunny plains and winter-struck mountains of the deep American South, Django Unchained is, all in all, a fairly straightforward tale of retribution and bloody vengeance. Through an effective and appropriately old-fashioned opening montage, we are introduced to Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave held by conjoined shackles, roaming the frigid Texan countryside with his fellow men and their traders. Upon reaching the woods, the caravan runs into a lone man, dentist and bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who inquires about Django against his owners’ wishes. Not content with backing down, he humorously disposes of the men and takes Django with him on a quest to hunt down multiple slavers and collect their bounty; in return for his help and sacrifices, Schultz promises to help him track down his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the clutches of the extravagant Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). While its revisionist nature and headstrong dive into the taboo reeks of Tarantino’s signature pastiche, the resulting story is a surprisingly uninvolving and detached affair, in part due to a selection of poor characters. Take Broomhilda for example; while we’re briefly made aware of her long-term relationship with our titular hero, her development as a character essentially starts and stops there, instead being substituted with copious scenes of torture that are meant to make us feel empathy. They undoubtedly do, yet we never get a better glimpse at who she is, being essentially reduced to a damsel in distress and nothing more. It’s a considerable disappointment given Tarantino’s usual array of strong and empowered female characters and, as a result, many of their scenes of suffering and pain, while unmistakably brutal and unflinching, are only measured in winces.
Much of the same issues plague the film’s titular character; for a film titled Django Unchained, Django never feels like the star of the show. Jamie Foxx does what he can but it ultimately can’t save his character from being one of the flattest and least interesting of the bunch and much of this stems from the little real development and attention given to him. For the majority of the film’s running time, he’s simply tagging along for the ride and being shown off as a beacon for confusion amongst the white folk. No, despite what its marketing and title would want you to believe, Django Unchained is a film written around Dr. Schultz, undoubtedly the liveliest of the bunch and portrayed with gusto by Christoph Waltz in another addictive performance. Tarantino has indeed found his new muse with Waltz, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and their chemistry is supremely entertaining to say the least. While Waltz more or less plays Schultz by using many of the same notes he used with the unforgettable Hans Landa, Schultz nonetheless enthralls as Django’s unexpected savior thanks to his wise, rogue-ish mannerisms and impeccably charismatic screen presence. It’s yet another great performance by Waltz that’s already snatched up prestigious honors. That being said, it also highlights just how lackluster Django is as a character, let alone a leading one; through the use of an unquestionably tacked on and overlong finale, he’s finally given control of his own film and, for the most part, simply fails to captivate. By being relegated to a sidekick for over half of the film’s running time and serving as little more than a tool to flesh out Schultz, we’re given next to no reason to feel involved.
Two other noteworthy turns do arise however in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s eccentric and equally unhinged plantation owner Calvin Candie, and Samuel L. Jackson’s overtly racist house slave Stephen. The pair act as the brains and the brawn behind Candie Land, working as one to keep the place in order and ensuring wrongdoers get punished. What’s most interesting about the pair however is just how inseparable they are; Candie proves to be quite the fool when left unattended and fails to see a ruse when it’s right in his lap. As his house slave and right hand man however, it’s Stephen’s job to clear his sights and essentially make sense of things for him. The two form a supremely entertaining team comprised of some of the most despicable characters ever created by Tarantino. In their first collaboration, Tarantino and DiCaprio hit things off on a high note, creating a character whose charisma and charm often interferes with his unethical view of the world. DiCaprio’s Candie is a character we love to hate, yet his crooked gaze resonates and creates a level of tension unmatched by any of the film’s other characters. It’s an uncompromising performance that one wouldn’t quite expect from someone like DiCaprio and yet fits like a glove when seen in motion. While Candie’s unrelenting and untamed side is particularly brutal to stomach (his disposal of slaves is disturbing to say the least), it’s Stephen’s seeming refusal to accept his own race that’s most fascinating of all, looking down at his own kind as if he were a slave trader himself. While his attitude can be summed up to being “promoted” to house slave, we’re only treated to few, brief glimpses into what made him who he is, never truly understanding his distorted outlook.That being said, Samuel L. Jackson does a wonderful job bringing this character to life, embodying a cartoonishly racist man whose refusal to accept his own kind borders on comedy at times; in many ways, Stephen is an older, equally vocal Uncle Ruckus, the outrageously self-hating character from the hit satirical show The Boondocks.
It would be easy to talk all day about the lack of truly strong black characters in Django Unchained, but the film also happens to suffer from a handful of technical shortcomings. For one, the late Sally Menke is truly missed in the editing room; her passing was something that was sure to be felt, having collaborated with Tarantino on every single one of his films. While Fred Raskin does a decent, if admirable attempt to help this, his lack of chemistry with Tarantino results in a film that rambles on without knowing when to stop. Whereas Menke knew to put her director in his place and tell him when enough was enough, Raskin was perhaps too intimidated to push any buttons and point out any issues with the film’s pacing. Whatever the reasoning, Django Unchained ultimately suffers from being too long and inconsistent, namely in the film’s tacked on finale. Even the film’s musical cues, a longstanding staple of Tarantino’s filmography and arguably one of the most exciting aspects of his films, feel disjointed or lacking this time around. For the first time ever, Tarantino agreed to the use of original material for the film’s score, with names such as John Legend, Rick Ross and Ennio Morricone contributing to the overall package. His inexperience with original songs is felt in the lackluster way some of the tracks are utilized; Rick Ross “100 Black Coffins” for one, a song touted as the film’s central piece, feels sorely underplayed within the film’s context, rising out of nowhere only to quickly fade away less than a minute later without contributing much at all to the scene at hand. It paints an annoyingly out of touch portrait of the filmmaker and simply feels half-baked.
Despite coming up short on a number of fronts, Django Unchained is nonetheless an extremely enjoyable romp through yet another grime-filled world from the depths of Tarantino’s mind and quite easily his most conventionally structured film to date. The plot has a very straightforward trajectory that it abides by, with the exception of a few flashbacks, and packs in a hefty amount of cameos from frequent collaborators and newcomers alike. In fact, even given its lurid and often unsettling subject matter, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s most genuinely funny work to date, utilizing its style to almost self-parodying degrees. In the same way that Inglourious Basterds managed to stir up some laughs within its problematic time period, Django Unchained finds humor in the situations rather than the subject matter; it wisely avoids poking fun at the tortured history of its subjects and instead paints its villains as mostly buffoonish caricatures who often stumble into moments of near slapstick comedy. In that respect, people debating whether Django Unchained crosses the line are simply missing the point. This is first and foremost a throwback to the zany world of blaxploitation films and Fred Williamsons, whose western Boss Nigger is a clear influence, just as Inglourious Basterds was a wild revisionist history epic deeply rooted in spaghetti westerns and classic war spectacles. If anything, Spike Lee remaking Oldboy for an American audience is a bigger insult.
For everything Django Unchained seems to pull off however, just as much holds it back and points out the film’s seemingly half-baked or unfinished nature. It’s a wickedly entertaining and often gut-bustingly funny film with a handful of remarkable performances yet it never quite finds its footing and eventually trips itself up in the final act. Many of Inglourious Basterds‘s beats are repeated without the subtlety or wit (the skull scene for one), resulting in a lingering sense of familiarity that plagues much of the film; even entire scenes from the director’s previous films make a resurgence under a different time period and it simply feels lazy. I look forward to seeing what Waltz and Tarantino pull off next as they’re bound to remain inseparable, though I hope their next picture delivers a much greater heaping of substance. Django Unchained is a series of great scenes and moments that unfortunately fail to coagulate and form a very memorable whole. Some of those scenes sure are great though.