Day 178: Django Unchained

"You doubt he'd approve?"
"Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best."

I can safely say that at this point in time, Quentin Tarantino is only interested in making films that appeal to people who like Quentin Tarantino films. If you do not fall firmly into this category, you will find nothing about Django Unchained to make you a true believer. It is everything people have come to expect from Tarantino. It contains everything his most ardent fans & his most adamant detractors have accused him of: excessive violence, colorful language, revisionist history, larger than life characters. If you're a fan, you'll find a lot to love. If you're not, you'll have plenty of ammunition to mount a constructive takedown of the film. There's a very clear dividing line to this film, almost more so than any other film he's made, and the fact that it plays to such extremes makes that divide all the more pronounced.

Having said all of that, I would count myself among Tarantino's fans. Inglourious Basterds put me pretty firmly back in that camp after I thought that the one-two punch of Death Proof & Kill Bill Vol. 2 had permanently removed me from it. Anchored by two incredibly effective lead performances, Inglorious Basterds had all of the over the top zeal and flair for the dramatic that made it such a bold leap forward from his earlier, more grounded work. I liked the direction that his career was heading, and looked forward to whatever came next.

What came next is Django Unchained, and while there is a lot to love about it as a film, it's not as complete a work as Basterds was in my opinion. The film, set in 1858, tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is bought by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) because he can identify three men, The Brittle Brothers, that Schultz is in the process of trying to claim a bounty on. Being a German that despises slavery, Schultz promises Django that once he identifies the Brittle Brothers, he will pay him $75 and grant him his freedom. Django proves to be handy with a gun, and Schultz offers to train him to be a bounty hunter as well, sweetening the deal for Django.

Django's true aim in life, however, is to find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom they discover is currently owned by a detestable man by the name of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie owns a plantation by the name of Candie Land where he trains slaves to partake in "Mandingo Fighting" which is essentially one-on-one slave combat to the death. Schultz offers to pose as a man interested in getting into the Mandingo Fighting game so that Django can purchase his wife's freedom. Matters are complicated, however, when Candie's head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) gets wise to their true intentions, and seeks to prevent his master from being taken advantage of.

Let me start by saying that there were a lot of things that I really enjoyed about this film. It's certainly one of Tarantino's funniest films, with more laughs than I expected there to be. I was also a fan of the unusual soundtrack choices he made, such as using Jim Croce's "I Got a Name," Richie Havens' "Freedom," and Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave." Previously he had only hinted at such eclectically anachronistic choices by using David Bowie's "Cat People" in Basterds, but he goes balls to the wall inaccurate in this film, and for me it worked brilliantly.

The performances are also fantastic. Waltz proves that he is an actor perfectly suited to Tarantino's dialogue. He has an amazing talent for actually elevating the material, and his line deliveries are fantastic. While he's not as good as he was in Basterds (nor will he likely ever be) he's pretty phenomenal in this film. Foxx is fantastic as well. His character is stoic and doesn't say much, but he uses the minimal dialogue he does have to great effect. DiCaprio is very good here as well, although a choice he made in a scene late in Act II took me out of his character for a moment, but he's otherwise solid. Jackson is great beyond words as well. He's done so much garbage in the past few years that it's easy to forget what a great actor he can be in the right role, and he does a terrific job of making you forget that he's Samuel L. Jackson, something he's almost never wholly successful at doing.

The handful of complaints that I have about the film kept me from loving it fully. First and foremost, it's his most poorly edited film ever. I know that it's a bit of an unfair slight to make since we lost his longtime editor Sally Menke in 2010, but the film suffers from a bit too much bloat. It's never boring, but I could feel myself thinking during certain scenes (the bag mob, the Australians) that they would really weigh the film down on subsequent viewings. There were also no unbearably tense scenes like Basterds had. That film's opening scene and the scene in the basement bar were masterfully shot and written for maximum intensity and a constant ratcheting up of the tension. This film had none of that, save for maybe one scene that telegraphed where it was headed way too soon (the scene in the library between Schultz & Candie).

I was also somewhat disappointed in the character of Broomhilda. She was nothing more than a plot device, and for Tarantino who has prided himself on creating such strong female characters in the past, he really gave her very little to do. Washington is very good in the role, but there's not much that she was given with which to work. Tarantino also should never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever allow himself to be in his own movies. He'd been good about this for a while, but his role near the end of the film almost completely derailed the entire film for me. Stop acting sir, you're a terrible actor.

Having said all that, the good significantly outweighs the bad in this film, and overall I really did enjoy the film. The performances are stellar, the directorial choices are appropriately showy, the script has some great dialogue and the humor really helps to alleviate the brutal subject matter. When taken as a whole though, I was just left wanting a little bit less. If Tarantino had reigned himself in some and chopped twenty minutes off of the film, it could have been great. But at the end of the day, I'll take a very good movie over 90% of the other films out there.

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