Originally Reviewed – 1/19/2013
Over New Years Eve, I sat on the floor of my good friend’s apartment and got all “film critic-y” about Quentin Tarantino. Fellow movie fans were all a-flutter about the auteur director’s latest film, Django Unchained. They and the rest of the film going community loved it, but the trailer had me less than psyched. My 1:00 AM reasoning? As a Quentin fan, I want more. Making his career off the videotaped memories of a young adulthood spent staring at picture shows, Tarantino uses his remarkable skills to make souped up genre flicks. The Pulp Fiction phenomenon aside, his movies range from good to great. Selfishly, I want him to take the artistic leap to exceptional. Django’s trailer seemed to offer more of the same and my pre show expectations were low.
And why wouldn’t they be given the setup? Essentially a spaghetti western Kill Bill, Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who’s freed from bondage by bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). With the help of the good doctor, Django embarks on a mission to free his wife from the same chains he found himself in for years and years. The man holding the key is the affluent Calvin Candie (Leonardo DeCaprio). Can Django and Shultz infiltrate the racist aristocracy of the 1860’s Deep South to save the woman he loves? Anybody with a brain in their head could answer that question but the point isn’t the threadbare story. It’s all about the strange, violent and oddly magnetic journey Django and company take during the film’s 165 minutes.
As of late, Tarantino has been seen as style over substance and the 8th fiick in the director’s filmography is pure tooth rotting deliciousness. Quentin colors Unchained with his usual winks to the genres he loves while maintaining genuine intrigue throughout. Foxx is cool yet menacing in his portrayal of the educated slave and has a likability that undercuts the rampaging action. Waltz is also fine as the gun toting dentist, despite his character wearing thin around the two and a half hour mark. The real surprise is DeCaprio as the master of the house. Leo does his best work when he loves the role and he has so much fun with the Southern accents and over the top monologues, it’s naturally infectious.
Of course, nothing exceeds like Tarantino excess which is where Django Unchained shines brightest. Watching Jamie Foxx dispatch hordes of racist baddies is good cathartic fun, made more so by Tarantino’s knack for pacing and timing. While gun slinging doesn’t have the visual impact of sword play or kung fu, Quentin makes it work with stylish camerawork and his usual flair for the absurd. The movie also has genuine comedy to rinse off the bloodshed. Many of the moments from a Clan meeting gone bad to the more subtle bouncing tooth on Schultz’s dentist’s wagon are hilarious, reminding the viewer they’re in a Tarantino world.
In fact, when thinking back on Django Unchained, I’m reminded that Tarantino isn’t just another auteur. He’s a cubist painter who takes familiar film archetypes and bends them to his own strange vision. Everything is slanted left of center and the result is an experience that doesn’t break new ground yet still feels fresh. The film isn’t perfect. There’s no sense of connection between Django and his love interest, there are some questionable musical choices and, for God’s sake Quentin, don’t ever make a cameo in your own film ever again. Still, the end result is full of sugary, pulpy goodness. Tarantino wisely doesn’t try to resolve race relations from 150 years ago. He blasts them in the face with gunpowder and surrealist mayhem. Django Unchained isn’t the masterpiece us Taran-taniacs have been looking for, but so long as the director continues to make entertaining and well made films, maybe that’s more than good enough.
Score – 80%