A screenshot from "Django Unchained" (Photo : Weinstein Company)
I would like to preface this article by stating that this review proved extremely difficult to write, as I could not plainly state all my thoughts on the film without reverting to plot spoilers. In hopes of not ruining the film for any readers, I have endeavored to write this review and any thoughts on the film with as few major plot spoilers as possible. If possible, I will further discuss this in a separate article that includes plot spoilers so as to further articulate these thoughts.
The undeniable genius of Quentin Tarantino is that it is impossible to predict anything about his films or filmmaking. Not only are all of his works imbued with trademark wit, solid scripting, a tremendous ear for dialogue, top rate performances, and an amoral approach to violence, but Tarantino always finds a way to redefine the genre and style of film he is making. Inglorious Basterds showcased historical revision from the auteur and a comic touch to the often somber war genre. His early works such as Pulp Fiction brought a new attitude to the gangster genre. With Django, Tarantino strives for a similar aesthetic with American slavery and the Western, but his overindulgent use of violence in latter sections of the film and some shoddy scripting ultimately creates a sloppy and predictable film.
In Django, Tarantino takes the Spaghetti Western to his own revision of the antebellum Southern United States where bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues a slave named Django to help him seek out a trio of brothers that he must kill. Django aids him in exchange for his freedom and Schultz eventually agrees to help the former slave rescue his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candie Land where she is the slave of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino does not shy away from the fact that his main aim is to portray the evils of the slavery era as ferociously as he can. In order to do so, he villifies every white person in the film (except Schultz) as much as he can in order to create a stronger bond with the character's central figure of Django. While subtlety has never been (and probably never will be ) a Tarantino trademark, it is extremely clear from the getgo that he is trying to guilt the viewer into this point of view and while we follow along with Django's quest, there is never a true affinity for him because of said manipulation.
The first two hours of the film fly by satisfactorily as Tarantino litters the screen with gorgeous imagery, snappy dialogue, and a colorful portrait of the era. There is some repetition as we witness Django and Schultz engage in a number of ultimately aimless murders, but Waltz's eccentricities more than make up for it. At the hour mark the heroes set off to save Broomhilda and the film really takes off despite the stakes being rather empty and superficial. Django and Schultz concoct a silly plan to rescue Broomhilda that includes paying big money for a slave fighter from Candie in order to then purchase Broomhilda as part of the package. However, there is never really any sense that the plan could go horribly wrong nor does Candie really pose such a tantamount threat to Schultz's master plan, Nonetheless, the plot manages to build to a rousing climax thanks to DiCaprio and Waltz's dynamics onscreen. But then the film's biggest issue presents itself: Tarantino effectively ends the journey but instead of ending the film, slaps on another 45 minutes made up mainly of a few brainless characters (literally), two overindulgent shootouts, and an unbelievable plot contrivance that most other screenwriters would heavily be criticized for.
Those hoping for guts flying everywhere, blood soaked walls, and close ups on knee caps getting blasted several times as characters writhe in pain will certainly be pleased, but this is where I drew my greatest objections with the film. Tarantino films are violent by nature and there are many moments where violence is in fact effective to express the darkness of the slave era in the U.S. During one sequence, Django whips a former owner to within inches of his death in a moment that truly exemplifies his anger and fury. We have witnessed these characters' brutality early on and Django's subsequent violence is not only warranted but greatly desired by the audience. In another sequence, Tarantino shows one character get mauled to pieces by dogs, but he selectively cuts to other characters' reactions making the audience's own piecing together of the event all the more horrifying and effective. In a later scene we are shown a Mandingo wrestling match to the death between two slaves, which is grueling and hard to watch but really expresses the cruelty that the slaves underwent. In these instances, Tarantino's violence serves an artful purpose and his brutality is admirable in its depiction of a violent society. But in the latter sequences, the violence becomes gratuitous and empty, almost as if Tarantino spewed as much blood everywhere simply because he could, despite serving no real purpose for the story. During a shootout, one character repeatedly gets blasted in the knee multiple times and shrieks out in pain. The character actually serves no point in the plot or in the battle and Tarantino's insistence on repeatedly cutting to a close-up of the knee every time it gets blasted almost makes one feel as if he admired watching this background character suffer and wanted his viewer to enjoy the sadistic experience with him. At this particular point I felt disgusted at what was transcending on screen, especially because this character's knee was of no consequence to the story or main characters and his suffering felt unnecessary and revolting. One could certainly make the argument that Tarantino justifies horrific violence against the original violent perpetrators, but his desire to impose grueling imagery on screen makes one wish he had shown a certain degree of restraint. It doesn't help that the latter action sequences (one of which involves the aforementioned knee cap) feel drawn out and labored, making the thrill of the action die down quickly.
Fortunately, the actors do a great deal to salvage the remainder of the film. Christoph Waltz leads a strong cast as the German doctor Schultz. For those familiar with his role of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, this is pretty much the same character, but with a scruffy look and a wagon that has a fidgety tooth on top of it. Waltz's Schultz is dangerous, always composed, and always seems to know what to do in every single circumstance. As in Basterds, his charisma dominates this film as much as it did that one; the only difference is that while none of his co-stars were on the same level as him in the prior film, he has a couple of titanic jousting partners in this one.
DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is just as charismatic as Landa and Schultz, but his arrogance coupled with his clear ignorance adds levity to the proceedings. He is one of the more menacing villains in Tarantino's filmography with his violent nature often found hiding behind warmth and affection. During one sequence, one of his slaves gets mauled dogs. Prior to ordering his death, Candie tries to bargain with his slave in a sort of father and son repartee that shows off his kindness. But as the slave gets devoured, he looks away from the scene and straight at Django with leering eyes, almost as if trying to break him down. His scenes with Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen are especially unforgettable in their tenderness as the two continually reverse their roles as slave and master and father and son. In a latter scene he has a horrifying monologue that will haunt the viewer long after the film has come to an end. The scenes that he and Waltz share together are easily the most memorable as their unpredictability keeps one entranced.
Samuel L. Jackson is another revelation in this film and does his best work in years as Tarantino gets the best out of him as Candie's house servant Stephen. The House Slave has slippery tongue and a menacing attitude that is only rivaled by his master. In his first scene, he complains and bickers like a child to Candie only to find himself babied moments later by his master. In a latter scene, the childish nature fades and is replaced by a serious manner as he and Calvin discuss a major problem in the library.
The presence of these three characters is so potent that their absence at one point in the film is not only felt, but detriments the picture. The main reason is that Jamie Foxx's Django is essentially devoid of personality, especially in comparison with the aforementioned characters. Tarantino rarely has Django say or do anything of interest (his defaults are to remain silent or to reach for his pistol) and in the moments he is asked to carry the film on his own, Foxx fails to deliver anything gripping or truly memorable as the character reverts to predictable behavior. Foxx hints at complexity behind his stern visage, but nothing in Django's behavior ever supports the notion of him being anything more than a stereotypical superhero. Kerry Washington, who plays his beloved Broomhilda, does little other than be the typical damsel in distress. The love story between these characters becomes the major focus of the plot in the film's second half and because neither of these characters manages to grab our attention or sympathies the way the others do, it becomes difficult to truly empathize with their plight.
Technically, this film is a feast. Cinematographer Robert Richardson draws up unforgettable images reminiscent of old westerns including deep focus on landscapes of snowcapped mountains and farmland and more than a fair share of sunsets. Tarantino and Music Supervisor Mary Ramos do a splendid job of compiling diverse music styles that range from Verdi's Requiem to 2Pac's "Untouchable" and James Brown's "The Payback" to add to the unpredictable nature of the film's soundtrack. Editor Fred Raskin does a solid job of keeping the film well-paced and propulsive despite the final 45 minutes dragging along.
Despite some top notch performances, Django ultimately feels like a fruitless and cluttered experiment. Whereas the characters' fates in other Tarantino films feel earned and satisfying, this one rings hollow due to the empty violence and endless repetition of Tarantino gags. Most fans of the auteur will be happy (though not this one), but others may start to wonder what the big deal is.
Watch the Video Review HERE.
Other Film Reviews by David Salazar
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Killing Them Softly
Silver Linings Playbook