Movie Review: Django Unchained
Blood-soaked, gruesome revelry of extreme carnage and violence? Check. Retro-licious mash-up of different genres and gleeful pop culture references, set to a wildly excellent soundtrack? Double-check. An epic journey of revenge and redemption punctuated by villainous snarky monologues and tightly-wound, snappy dialogue? ….aaaand check. (Or: THAT’S A BINGO! one might say in the Tarantino-verse.) Yes, [...]
Blood-soaked, gruesome revelry of extreme carnage and violence?
Retro-licious mash-up of different genres and gleeful pop culture references, set to a wildly excellent soundtrack?
An epic journey of revenge and redemption punctuated by villainous snarky monologues and tightly-wound, snappy dialogue?
….aaaand check. (Or: THAT’S A BINGO! one might say in the Tarantino-verse.)
Yes, there’s no denying that Django Unchained is 100% Quentin Tarantino. Featuring all of the iconic auteur’s classic trademarks and directorial stamp, Djano Unchained is unabashedly Tarantino…but that’s not at all a bad thing. In fact, it’s just one of the many reasons to strap on the boots and saddle-up for another gleefully violent trip through the mind of this cinephile we all know and love.
As such, Django Unchained is the latest release coming from Quentin Tarantino, coming in a surprisingly short amount of time since his last feature, 2009’s well-beloved Inglourious Basterds (given the usual length of time he places between releasing films).
In fact, it would not at all be hard-pressed to think of Django Unchained as almost of a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, as both being comedic-ly-tinged historically-revisionist revenge flicks both owing their heritage to that of the famed spaghetti-westerns of old. And while Inglourious Basterds wore its spaghetti-western and Ennio Morricone influences through the garbs of scalp-hunting and killing Nazi’s, Django Unchained instead takes these roots and applies them into the blaxploitation realm by way of Red Dead Redemption, with some groovy anachronistic 60’s/70’s tunes finding their way into Django’s search for revenge.
Either way, Django Unchained proves a beast of its own making, as we’re quickly introduced to the main plight of its titular hero, Django. Bound in chains and marched off by his masters, Django is soon freed by a wandering “dentist”-cum-bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Taking him under his own wing and training him in the field in the art of killing and becoming a bounty hunter, Schultz takes Django along on a search for his latest “business ventures,” in exchange for helping to find Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Their quest for revenge ultimately brings them on a wild ride in the mid-1800’s South, filled with bands of the KKK (and a quite funny bunch, at that), an encounter with the formidable plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and being a Tarantino picture at heart, lots of crackling dialogue and more than a few dashes of hardcore ultra-violence.
That being said, Django is equal parts fun and exciting new territory for Tarantino to chart, even if at points it feels like a journey through well-worn ground at times, which is often the only real mark against his new work. Having this being technically his fourth “revenge” flick in a row following his previous entries, Kill Bill Vol 1/Kill Bill Vol 2 (okay, so “third” revenge flick if you decide to count those two as one), and Inglourious Basterds, it causes Django to at times feel like it’s spinning its wheels a bit and not going anywhere particularly “new.” At this point, revenge is a well-worn topic for Tarantino, and as such the plot-device of “vengeful man/woman/person going out to seek rightful justice for the injustices caused to him” has been well explored through the Bride’s quest against Bill, and the Basterds’ hunt against Hitler thrice before it.
Despite the slight retreads, this is but a small, small mark against Django, which otherwise fully lives up to the Tarantino marks of quality and fits right alongside his shelf of previous classics, and stands tall next to Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and so many others.
While I can’t entirely speak for the historical accuracies of Django (which I would assume are just as accurate as Inglourious Basterds…so, not very much, at all), Tarantino’s latest at least brings the same sense of tone and setting to life in bringing the mid-1800’s South to the screen, and at the same time perfectly complementing the “thirst for vengeance” that so defines Django Unchained. Bringing the historically-revisionist angle to Django like previously in Inglourious Basterds, the film just as much revels in its spaghetti-Western roots as much as it almost parodies and augments as well, with the setting and art direction perfectly representing the mid-1800’s South as much as it is comically accentuated by touches of 1960’s-70’s era music and visual touches that echo its roots in spaghetti-Westerns, and even more specifically, the little dashes of blaxploitation films thrown in to spice up Django Unchained.
Though it can go without saying, the presentation and scripting aspects of Django are fantastic: Tarantino once again shows his knack for crackling dialogue and conversations, and really these scenes make for not only some of the highlights of the entire film, but for the entire year (I dare you NOT to laugh at a truly awesome scene early in the film with said KKK clan-members arguing about the making of their Klan hoods). Even though some of these scenes may pay more than their fair homage to Tarantino’s previous works (including a scene very much echoing Bill’s “Superman” monologue from Kill Bill Vol 2), the film still features plenty of ripe monologues and scenes true to the Tarantino form that often crackle with intensity and humor at the same time. Once Django and Schultz come into the hands of Calvin Candie and his faithful slave assistant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), things really intensify, as the scripting and dialogue creates one of the most uneasy and intense scenes in the same vein as the tight-wire underground bar scene from Inglourious Basterds, or the infamous ear-cutting of Reservoir Dogs. Even with such strong dialogue and scripting, it only helps to have such great performances across the board: although not necessarily given a whole lot to work with in terms of interesting character development, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington play out Django and Broomhilda’s romance convincingly and play off of each other exceedingly well, as well as giving Django some great moments of true badass-ery.
Likewise, the film truly belongs to its supporting players: although being in a sort of flip from his truly villainous Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz brings the same charismatic aplomb and tenacity to his mentor-role as King Schultz, with plenty of great scenes and especially getting to shine in the first half of the film. For the second-half, it’s DiCaprio and Jackson that radiate together as Calvin Candie brings a hostile calm and brutal professionalism, while Stephen becomes one of the most heinous old-timers imaginable, and yet still delightful to watch. Seeing DiCaprio having such fun in quite a departure from his usual fare by playing a villain is just great, as well as getting probably one of the best performances from Samuel L. Jackson in a very, very long time in the same film just brings it all together for a film that just radiates from its strong supporting cast.
While the film falters at some points from its over-familiarity in the Tarantino universe combined with being both overly long and yet feeling curiously rushed and not quite as polished as previous entries (especially without the editing talents of Tarantino’s former editor, Sally Menke – RIP), Django Unchained is still a worthy entry in the pantheon of one of our great current auteurs, and more-so another great achievement in the Tarantino universe with all the styles we’ve come to know and love from him…and expect, of course.
From the born-to-be-a-classic opening theme song to its final “explosive” moments, Django Unchained is just bloody good fun…literally.