Django Unchained Review
After a marathon 130 day production that unceremoniously managed to chew and spit out no less than Kevin Costner, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Sacha Barron Cohen, Kurt Russell, Anthony LaPaglia, and Jonah Hill (before recasting him in a small role), Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature film (I count Kill Bill as one whole film), Django Unchained, is being unleashed this Christmas. This will be the first Tarantino film since Jackie Brown to be released on this holiday. Like that film, it seems designed to send Spike Lee into a screaming fit over its overly-casual use of the n-word. Only this time, it is in a somewhat justifiable historical context.
His new film continues Mr. Tarantino’s recent swan-dive into cartoon-ish, anachronistic historical fantasies/obscure movie homages that started with Inglorious Basterds. Like that film, it was partially inspired by a classic film from the 60s. This one was an actual spaghetti western from 1966 called Django (its star, Franco Nero, has a cameo here). Unlike that film, it does not really improve on anything besides production value. Worse yet, it may be Mr. Tarantino’s most self-indulgent film yet, which is really saying something after Death Proof. Though it doesn’t contain anything as ridiculous as suggesting that Eli Roth gunned down Hitler in a movie theater, Django Unchained holds many subversive pet peeves of its own.
The story begins in 1856, “two years before the Civil War,” as a superimposed card tells the audience. Slavery in the US is still allowed by law. This is where historical fact begins and ends. The plot is an overly complicated diatribe involving a German dentist-turned bounty hunter (a pitch-perfect Christoph Waltz) freeing a stoic slave named Django (a refreshingly subtle Jamie Foxx) and training him to rescue his wife, Blaxploitation-esque named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from a flamboyant Plantation owner, Calvin Candie (a lively Leonardo DiCaprio), and his loyal head servant, Steven (Samuel L. Jackson, whose entire performance comments on the role). Naturally, much mayhem, violence, and discussions of etiquette ensue.
While all of these performances were superlative and nuanced, only Mr. Dicaprio really stood out to me as an awards contender in the supporting category. While not his best work to date (that would be in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, IMO), his colorful first-time villainous effort (unless you count Catch Me if You Can) here suggests that him playing Jay Gatsby may not be such a far-fetched notion after all.
My personal favorite performance came in the form of Don Johnson as the corny Plantation owner, Big Daddy. I am most thankful that that name is no longer just associated with the Adam Sandler film of the same name in my head. His drawn-out scenes were hilarious and justified Mr. Tarantino’s insistence on stretching out his sub-plot to wear out its welcome. His later scenes involving a botched lynching seemed right out of the Blazing Saddles handbook, which I appreciated. Mr. Tarantino is legendary at taking a once popular, washed-up actor and single-handedly resurrecting his career. This time, it is probably Mr. Johnson who will be that beneficiary.
Considering the strength of the male performances in this film, one thing I felt immediately lacking was the absence of female representation. Considering how aggressively Mr. Tarantino has championed female authority in almost every one of his previous films (sans Reservoir Dogs), this almost fatally marks this one. Most of the women are just there as evidence that there were nondescript female slaves that only existed to cook and clean houses. Miss Washington, Zoe Bell, and Amber Tambyn barely even register as characters. Though Broomhilda looks stunning in her gorgeous period costumes, most of her dialogue comes in the form of some phonetically-spoken German (yes, she is a slave who speaks German) and is in almost every scene either standing around or being victimized. With its focus strictly on the male relationships, this has to be Mr. Tarantino’s most strangely homoerotic film since Reservoir Dogs. Whether this is an actual flaw of the film depends on your own interpretation. The notion of Django going through this unyielding journey for the woman he loves seems almost like an afterthought by the end of the film.
But while it is arguable who gives the best performance, it is easy to point out who gives the worst one and that is by Mr. Tarantino himself who turns up toward the end as a slave transporter with a hideous attempt at a Southern accent. Even worse, he actually gives himself lines to say. I can tell you that his acting skills have not improved since his equally vacuous role in Pulp Fiction.
One of the most haunting aspects of the film that is the first Tarantino feature not edited by the late Sally Menke. who edited all of his films until Inglorious Basterds. It was also not produced by his longtime producer, Lawrence Bender. The great production designer J. Michael Riva also died during production. For these reasons, Django Unchained seems to represent a new chapter in his directing career, for better and, mostly, for worse. If one aspect of it stands out, it is that the pacing and story structure is wildly uneven, even by Tarantino’s indulgent standards. This drained most of the film of almost any actual suspense due to its own sense of self-importance and fixation on spectacle over emotional resonance. It actually felt predictable and lopsided. Even the opening credits felt bland and unexciting, which is a first for a Tarantino film. At the risk of sounding cliché, I didn’t really care about any of the characters or what happened to them. Too many scenes called attention to themselves that did not deserve to. By the end of the second hour, I just wanted it to be over, and then realized there was still another forty-five minutes to go.
One aspect that did not disappoint besides the acting was the soundtrack. One can never mention the cinema of Tarantino without mentioning the selected music. This time, there was music written specifically for the film. One of these pieces was by the great composer Ennio Morricone, who sadly had to drop out of composing Inglorious Basterds. Thankfully, his contribution here makes up for a lot of what this film wouldn’t offer otherwise. The same goes for other period-inappropriate songs by Anthony Hamilton and James Brown. It has already been noted in the press that a song written by the recent Grammy nominee, Frank Ocean, was nixed. I’m hoping that song ends up on the Blu-ray deleted scenes.
Overall, Mr. Tarantino’s public stubbornness against digital cinema/projection and not wanting to make films past his prime suggest this might end up being one of his final theatrical efforts. However, his talents might be better suited for an HBO and/or Showtime mini-series on the scale of John Adams, Mildred Pierce, or Band of Brothers these days. I wanted Django Unchained to be his version of Roots, and, if it had been a TV production, it could have ended up living up to that. To be fair, this is one of the first mainstream action films, let alone Spaghetti western homages, to set the story against slavery that isn’t called Mandingo. Django may be unchained, but if Mr. Tarantino wishes to continue theatrical productions, he needs to figure out how to show some restraint.
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