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.