The prospect of Quentin Tarantino doing a runaway slave film, set in the Deep South, is intriguing. The prospect of him handling such a film as a western is yet more intriguing. Couple that with the cast he assembled, and the thought of who he wanted to assemble, and it’s impossible to pass up.
I loved the movie. It was a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience, and one that can only be delivered by Quentin Tarantino. The film has a kinetic energy in the first half, and a slower, more contemplative feel in the second half, akin to the two Kill Bill halves.
The film transitions from one to another with the introduction of Calvin Candie, played brilliantly by Leo DiCaprio; a cold-hearted, traditionalist, slave-owner, Candie is not a man to be trifled with, but DiCaprio’s near perfectly executed delivery prevents him from becoming a cliche. While Candie can be a little over-the-top, he falls in line with other characters in the Tarantino universe. His interactions with Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen (who is an institutionalized slave with a dog-like loyalty to Candie; akin to most african-american slaves in Gone With The Wind if you’ve ever seen it) are quite fascinating; Stephen’s end, by the way, is perfectly executed in the film, in my opinion.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are best described as a tandem: they have great chemistry, with Waltz’s Dr. King able to push and prod Foxx’s Django into doing what is necessary, even if it means being an unlikable slave trader in front of slaves. Foxx is smart enough to hold back, as is Waltz, and their restraint allows the supporting cast’s exaggerated performances to complement theirs, rather than overtaking the film. Foxx’s controlled delivery is best exemplified by a line that was in the trailer, but works even better in the film:
“What’s your name?” “Django.” “How’d you spell it?” “D-J-A-N-G-O. [awkward pause] The ‘d’ is silent.”
Now, there are a few things I didn’t like about the film. First and foremost, the liberal use of the n-word, even if justified historically (which I have no doubt it is), could have been held back; it may have been a nice touch to have Django and Schultz avoid using it normally, so that when they go in character, it really stands out. Secondly, Sally Menke, Tarantino’s editor who passed away in 2010, is sorely missed. No disrespect to her successor, but he needed to tighten the last third of the film up; I don’t mind the long run time, case in point, Inglourious Basterds runs quite a while, but it works perfectly fine. There’s just some beats and quiet moments that weren’t necessary; they added something, but at the cost of slowing the film down. Finally, there’s too many false endings; i.e. too many occasions where you think, “that’s the movie,” but it keeps going on, and when the film ends, it is a little anti-climatic, even if it does feel like the proper way to end the movie.
However, like I said I love the film. Part of my criticisms originate from the babies who were crying in the theater and the fact I really had to use the bathroom; the other part is that I inadvertently brought my sky-high expectations in with me, which I didn’t mean to do (I forgot to put them in the glove compartment of my Prius, I was in a rush). However, as much as I love it, Django Unchained is not Tarantino’s masterpiece; if you want to view his career in the broad view, it can be one of many masterpieces, but his most stunning triumph is still Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino avoids following many western cliches, and although the film rises above the western background, it could have used some of them; there are few epic riding sequences, and the music is not the grand score a western requires. The beginning of the film looks far more like an exploitation film than a western, and the western element doesn’t kick in until about ten minutes into the picture.
One note in particular: while this is the most violent and graphic of Tarantino’s pictures, I would hesitate to describe it as “violent”; as with Pulp Fiction, the violence is relatively contained, and the reason it feels violent is that Tarantino’s style of making you wait for the punch line (or just a punch, or a gun shot, let’s just say fight) makes it feel far more violent than the film actually is.
If you like Tarantino, then see this movie. If you want a roller coaster of a ride, then see this movie. If you don’t mind gore, blood, rough language, and want to be entertained, then see the film. Pretty much, unless you don’t like what makes R-rated films R-rated, you’ll probably enjoy the film.
My rating: A-