REVIEW: Django Unchained [2012]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 165 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Writer(s): Quentin Tarantino

“Are the bags on or off?”

I’m not sure Quentin Tarantino could ever be mistaken for someone subtle, but even he may have gone too far with his latest, Django Unchained. A revenge flick drenched in blood, America’s tarnished history, and a surprising wealth of humor, what starts as a film I would have been hard-pressed to deny as being one of his best quickly buckles under its own weight towards an overblown, farcical finale that completely derails any momentum its climax builds. The auteur is a master of the medium crafting tales so utterly unique and yet so familiar, but his desire to entertain has finally beaten his ability to tell a great story into submission. Equal thirds brilliant, unadulterated fun, and self-indulgent excess, Django tries hard to be Inglourious Basterds only to prove how lacking such a comparison truly is.

There is a lot to love from frame one until the sharp cut to black after its climactic, graphically violent massacre; so much so that it almost lets you forget how bad what follows ends up. You can’t ask for a better introduction to bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) or his soon-to-be partner Django (Jamie Foxx) and it’s seemingly all uphill from there. Shackled and en route to his new plantation, the battered slave with a branded “r” for “runaway” on his cheek is miraculously reborn courtesy of the kindly German dentist cutting his transport off in the woods with a carriage comically affixed by a springy fake tooth bouncing and squeaking upon its roof. It’s a meeting of kindred spirits in a business accord that ultimately evolves into a unique partnership way ahead of its time.

A man of impeccable etiquette and remorseless joy towards murder, Schultz is very much a rehash of Waltz’s Oscar-winning Col. Hans Landa—the similarity probably the only thing preventing him from being talked about for a repeat award. Something about his child-like grin, penchant for fanning out his moustache, and jovial demeanor allows him to manipulate the intellectually inferior men he engages on his journey. By tricking the bumbling Southerners along the way to help facilitate his disposal of wanted men, watching him confidently hide behind the law once its shield for homicide dissolves with his target’s last breath becomes one of the film’s true treats. And seeing Django process the overload of information to become equally fearsome in the game only increases the excitement for when the two hit the road, guns blazing.

Act One is flawless as a result with the fast friends tracking down the Brittle Brothers—a trio who abused Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) before separating and selling them off. We learn some backstory on Django, bask in the intricacies of Schultz’s complicated ex-dentist, and get entertained by flamboyant wardrobe, Don Johnson‘s Ku Klux Klan pratfalls, and wittily sharp dialogue easily amongst Tarantino’s best. Their time as legally endorsed killers through the winter wisely plays out in an abbreviated montage and we’re soon made ready for what the trailers portray as the meat of the tale. Hatching a plan to infiltrate Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) aptly named Candie Land to trick the slave owner into selling Broomhilda via a Mandingo fighting ruse, the deliberately paced slow con becomes an acting clinic.

I really enjoyed this portion of the film. It’s not as funny or quick as the first but it’s a treat to watch Jamie Foxx dive into his role. No longer a slave, Django will do whatever’s necessary to find the woman he loves—even if it means pretending to be a One-eyed Charlie (Mandingo scout) black slaver. He knows there’s nothing lower in the eyes of his race, so he goes all-in. Berating slaves from his horse, embarrassing Candie’s posse without restraint, and relishing the opportunity to backtalk as a rule, Foxx steals each scene with his stoic, biting tenacity. The transformation is so effective that Waltz’s fear and DiCaprio’s curiosity appear natural reactions on behalf of the actors rather than their characters. It’s a dynamic crucial to what unfolds next.

DiCaprio’s Candie is smarmy goodness that excites on paper and screen but never rises above more than caricature while Samuel L. Jackson‘s housemaster Stephen proves the exact opposite. Ornery, entitled, and opinionated, he verbally spars with Candie unafraid of the consequences you’d assume come with such insolence. Their relationship is a delicate one revealed when the players’ motives are laid on the table before erupting into a macabre dance of death. Matched against Django and Schultz, this foursome is always teetering on the edge of exposing true intentions and the suspense ratchets up as a result. I just wish the place where Tarantino handcuffed himself into arriving at after civility was no longer an option became the film’s final resting place.

I understand that the blaxpolitation-esque heroic destruction of the white oppressor was key to the director’s intent, but having what was steeped in a logical authenticity for so long dismantle into fantasy cliché completely destroyed what was my rapturous attention. The only way I could forgive this blatant tonal shift would be finding out everything after the transition was actually a dream played out within the mind of an emotionally and physically defeated soul. It’s just too self-indulgent—complete with a horrible cameo by Tarantino—to be anything but a serious extension of the story. Everything changes in the blink of an eye and in effect made me start acknowledging other small details I previously glossed over.

Like why is James Remar playing two characters? It’s noticeable and made me think there would be a connection. Why did so many familiar faces get involved for less than a minute of screen time? We’re talking Bruce Dern, Amber Tamblyn, Russ Tamblyn, M.C. Gainey, Jonah Hill, Zoe Bell, Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Tom Wopat, and 1966’s “Django”, Franco Nero. Maybe Tarantino got greedy and thought he’d have fun remaking Basterds with vindicated African Americans instead of Jews. But there’s a problem when the king of referential homage starts referencing his own films. Django Unchained has so much going for it and yet I can’t shake my feeling of disappointment. It’s a four star film docked to three for failing to live up to its potential.

[1] Christoph Waltz as Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in DJANGO UNCHAINED
Credit: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP / The Weinstein Company
[2] Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in DJANGO UNCHAINED
Credit: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP / The Weinstein Company
[3] Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Schultz in DJANGO UNCHAINED
Credit: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP / The Weinstein Company

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