Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen
R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
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There are few directors who can roll out a new film every few years and immediately grab attention. Three years after his success with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino takes on another period drama about persecution. Django Unchained puts revenge in the hands of a former slave searching for the love of his life.
Jamie Foxx, in one of the best performances of his career, plays the eponymous Django, a former slave sold off by his owners for daring to raise a hand to a white man. As the film opens on a dark, frigid night, bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates Django to help him locate a wanted trio of vicious brothers whom no one but Django can reliably identify. Together, King and Django embark on a far-ranging quest to rescue Django's lost wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the cold and calculating land owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino frequently draws on strong actors to deliver his outlandish dialogue and with the likes of Waltz, DiCaprio, Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins on hand, there's litte doubt that you're in for an acting treat. Waltz has done negligible work outside of Tarantino's films and although there are some striking similarities between his character of Dr. King Schultz here and Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, the two performances are distinct enough to be compelling. Unlike his decliciously evil villain in Basterds, Dr. Schultz is compassionately devoted to equality. Being a foreigner in America likely influences that perception. I have little doubt that Tarantino's decision to make Django's savior a German is intended to draw parallels between the anti-freedom Nazi party of his prior film and the anti-slave sentiments on display in Django Unchained. And even if that decision isn't intentional, naming the character King after Martin Luther King Jr, more than likely is.
DiCaprio is zealous in his villainy, which showcases his talent better than any role he's had in the last decade. Likewise, Jackson departs from his recent reputation to play one of Candie's devoted toadies, adding a level of depth to the racial struggles in the film. Not all blacks were perfectly despised by their owners, especially if they were known to suck up and protect their masters. Jackson unleashes his most despicable, yet compelling character to date.
Placing revenge squarely in the hands of those being oppressed is a frequent theme of Tarantino's. His Kill Bill films started a series of vengeance dramas that not only rely on his well-established blaxploitation influence and appreciation of fitting, yet out-of-period music, but also build a framework of minority empowerment. Women, Jews and now blacks are given equal parts reverence from a filmmaker whose credentials with the younger generation are unquestionable and whose efforts may do more to promote and protect equality than any other filmmaker actively working today. Perhaps he'll next tackle a period revenge drama centered around gays winning out over repression.
Django Unchained isn't without its issues. Having lost his longstanding collaborator Sally Menke, three years ago, Django is his first film that felt poorly edited. After his work on three Fast & Furious projects, you would think Menke's frequent assistant editor Fred Raksin would have created a movie that flowed better from scene to see. Frequently, the action shudders to a halt as we wait for exposition to reveal itself. These slow patches may fit somewhat well into the spaghetti western genre Tarantino is emulating, but there is so much more of his trademark deliberation that feels missing. Robert Richardson's cinematography is strong and the late J. Michael Riva does some of his best work on the production design front.
Tarantino's writing has largely been a tight twist of exposition, expletives, violence and pensivity. Django Unchained struggles a great deal to blend these threads together in a way that feels organic. While it would be easy to place the blame on his editor, much of the problem lies in Tarantino's egocentrism. Being perpetually informed that you are one of the great writers of the modern era can negatively influence the creative process. After his broadly appealing work on Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino seems to believe that what he writes is in little need of editing control. If he thinks of an idea, it goes into the film, which creates a backlog of characters that don't have much purpose and compound the frustrations his editors have in crafting a cohesive, fluid effort.
While Django Unchained is a better film than his half of Grindhouse, for me, this is minor, self-indulgent Tarantino. It's easy to enjoy the film, but I feel no more enriched by the film than I do by most Summer blockbusters. A stronger grasp on the material by his editor and a fundamentally re-written script might have made the perfect movie. Kill Bill, Volume 1, Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction remain his best and at this juncture, I'm not certain he can regain his former glory. At least we can hope.
March 27, 2013