Django Unchained: Classic Tarantino material excites but is marred by disjointed presentation
So far, popular opinion concerning Quentin Tarantino’s latest directorial effort has focused solely on the explicit nature of it’s violence. Why? As one of perhaps many 13 year-olds who were simultaneously horrified and thrilled by the wanton bloodletting in the Kill Bill movies of nearly a decade ago, (already 10+ years into Tarantino’s career) I find myself puzzled that the directors’ panache for stylized mayhem, already a well established trademark, should be so obsessively picked over once again by moviegoers who by now should be used to this sort of thing.
To give this film the appropriately balanced consideration it deserves, we must ask ourselves if the film succeeds in hitting all the targets it sets out to. The short answer is that Django Unchained works in the capacity of capping a loose trilogy of revenge films, through which Tarantino has expressed his love for a number of genres: the Martial Arts film (Kill Bill), the War Film (Inglourious Basterds), and finally, this, his Western, Django Unchained (technically a “Southern”). As for how often and how well Django stands up to the previous two films, however, the answer is often, but not always, and well, but not always well enough.
Before we explain, here is the setup: in 1858, a slave known simply as “Django” (Jamie Foxx) is freed by an Austrian dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz)The likeable, grandiloquent doctor persuades the stoic yet sensitive Django to assist him in bounty hunting a pair of criminals who the latter is familiar with, and soon, the two are full-time partners in meting out harsh justice across the south; their meandering exploits build up to the final act, in which Schultz helps Django track down and rescue his wife, Broomhilda ( Kerry Washington), from a sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio).
With a perfect premise from which to launch another sharp-witted Tarantino flick, one would expect things to go off without a hitch. After all, the directors films are consistently enthralling, not simply for the violence, but for the energy and enthusiasm with which he mixes B-Movie grindhouse-abandon with a disciplined cinematic flair.
With Django, I find that, oddly enough, the film is a bit short on both abandon and discipline. I couldn’t quite place the cause of this impression at first, as the violence here is staged with wild abandon (think volcanos of blood, contrasted with Kill Bill’s more orderly geysers), and the dialogue is, as usual, excellent.
Still, there is something about the way the film flows that jars the viewer: too many detours, too many scenes of prolonged tension culminating in brief (and therefore anti-climactic) spurts of action.
One wonders when Candie’s glowering menace will finally provoke Django into action. When the action finally arrives, the climax seems to be split down the middle, with an unnecessary intermission in which Django encounters a group of Australian slavers (an excuse for Tarantino to make an awkward cameo).
Another troublesome factor worth mentioning is the treatment Django himself; I understand that he is meant to be an enigmatic man of few words, with little explanation for his proficiency in killing, but this often makes the audience feel as if he is a supporting character in his own film (especially considering that he never has a proper confrontation with the lead villain). Flashbacks featuring his wife only serve to raise more questions about the characters’ past, which are never revealed. Being a movie which advertises the retaliation of black characters against the system, it is troublesome that there is not more of a focus on their histories or relationships.
Other reviewers have mentioned—and it has crossed my mind as well—that the film’s sense of disorganization stems from the missing presence of a key Tarantino collaborator: the late Sally Menke, who had edited each one of his films until her unfortunate passing in 2010. It is a great credit to Menke’s talent and the palpable effect on the films she’s cut that Django, at times, feels lost without her. Whether this assumption is correct or not, Django Unchained ultimately feels like sketches for a great film.
Also, it should have been mentioned earlier that Samuel Jackson’s performance is an absolute highlight. Upon recognizing him as Stephen, the head servant of Candie, his menacing performance improved the latter half of the movie and it stands to contend with Dicaprio’s for sheer villainy.
Final Verdict: ⅗ stars, frustrating but worthwhile.
ANDREW RUSSELL can be reached at email@example.com.