Review: Django Unchained
Whether this is a compliment or a criticism depends, of course, on your opinion of Quentin Tarantino films. If you adore Tarantino's cinematic trademarks -- the sometimes incongruous mix of oddball humor, seemingly endless conversations, horrific violence, and soundtrack music so unlikely that it somehow works perfectly – you will adore Django Unchained.
If you don't adore such things, you probably already know enough to skip Django Unchained in favor of saner and more easily digestible fare such as Lincoln or Les Miserables. Which is just fine; Tarantino is an acquired taste, and even some devout Tarantino fans have yet to fully acquire it. (I love all things Tarantino, except the violence when it exceeds my tolerance for gore and the conversations when they exceed my tolerance for people who don't know when to shut up.)
Django Unchained is arguably Tarantino's most ambitious film, a sprawling, 165-minute (sigh) period piece set in the South in 1858. The story opens as German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), encounters Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who can help Schultz identify his quarry: the Brittle brothers, three fugitive murderers who had brutalized Django in the past. Schultz acquires Django, promising to free him when he and Schultz capture the Brittles.
As promised, Schultz frees Django after they find the Brittles. But instead of parting, the two men become bounty hunting partners, earning a good living while also searching for Django's long-lost wife, Broomhilda* (Kerry Washington), whom slave traders had separated from Django years earlier. Most of Django Unchained involves Schultz and Django's search for Broomhilda and attempts to free her from her master, wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The broad and sometimes excessive (hey, it's a Tarantino movie) Django Unchained wears many hats, some of which fit far better than others. The film is at its best as a comic romp. There are absurd scenarios, hilarious wisecracks, goofy characters and sight gags galore, and all the jokes hit their marks as precisely as Django's rifle shots hit their unlucky targets. Django Unchained may be Tarantino's funniest film; the best comic bits no doubt will end up as popular YouTube videos. (Among them is a Blazing Saddles-esque scene in which hooded vigilantes complain about how they can't see out of their hoods.)
I suppose Django Unchained also works well as a violent action film, although it's hard to praise the bloodshed when it reaches the ridiculous levels that are Tarantino's stock-in-trade. To the director's credit, the bloody mayhem is so over-the-top that we can't take it seriously; it's more cartoonish than revolting, and the humor and carnage are more complementary than contradictory.
What doesn't work? If Tarantino had stuck with the comedy and action, Django Unchained would be a terrifically entertaining movie. But the story becomes mired in undercooked drama and social commentary about the evils of slavery, especially in the somnambulant, dialogue-heavy third act. (Django Unchained should be a two-hour film; most of the last 45 minutes are disappointingly dull, greatly detracting from an otherwise rollicking tale.) Unlike the violence, the drama in Django Unchained is a jarring contrast to the comedy.
Django and Schultz find themselves dealing with many moral quandaries; in several pivotal scenes, they must harm one person to help another. These quandaries are the thought-provoking stuff of great drama, but they don't fit at all with Django Unchained's silly humor and sillier slaughter, especially when the characters are being absurd in one scene and sincere in the next. Also, great drama rests on great character development, which isn't Tarantino's strong suit. A truly funny comedy can get away with two-dimensional characters, but we need to know a lot more about Schultz, Django, Broomhilda and Candie to understand their behavior in the film's dramatic scenes.
If any actor owns Django Unchained, it's Waltz. He's brilliantly funny as Schultz, chewing the scenery with his crisp, German-accented English diction, grammatical pendantry, and smirking condescension toward every ignorant yokel he encounters. Foxx is great also, although he's at a disadvantage in that Django is a mostly dramatic character in a film that should avoid drama.
DiCaprio also shines, obviously enjoying his stint as the campy Calvin Candie. (To remind yourself of DiCaprio's great range, compare Candie to the actor's last major role, J. Edgar Hoover.) Washington is fine as Broomhilda, and probably would be even finer if the character did more than act scared and look pretty. (Her existence more or less anchors the entire story; why didn't Tarantino make her a whole person?)
Beyond the major characters, half the fun of Django Unchained is the parade of great talent in minor roles and cameos; they all look as if they're having a blast, especially Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's house slave, Stephen, and Don Johnson as plantation owner Big Daddy. Look for stars old and new -- from Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn and Ted Neeley to Jonah Hill, Amber Tamblyn and Zoe Bell -- in quirky little parts; obviously, everyone wants to work with Tarantino.
I wanted to love Django Unchained; I ended up liking it. (To fall in love with it, I'd need to see a sort of non-director's cut without all the ill-conceived drama.) It's two-thirds of a great time at the movies and a film I recommend, if only to Tarantino fans with plenty of patience.
Austin/Texas connections: An early scene in the film is set in Texas. Jamie Foxx is from Terrell. Lee Horsley (Sheriff Gus) is from Muleshoe. Ted Neeley is from Ranger.
*Editor's note: Yes, the character's name is spelled "Broomhilda," despite the fact that she is supposed to be named for the mythical Brunhilde. Really. I verified it in several places. Sometimes I wonder if Mr. Tarantino delights in annoying my inner copy editor with his bizarre spelling choices.