There are only a few living directors today where everyone sits up and takes notice when they have a new film out. Spielberg, Cameron, Scorsese, Nolan, but only one is more fun than any of them, Tarantino.
The man has only made a handful of films over his career, but each has been of such high quality that it’s reasonable to assume his next will be an instant classic like the others. The man has said that he’s wanted to make a spaghetti western for years now, so how does his attempt fare, now that Django Unchained is finally out?
Well, it can be said of some films that they’re good, but not great. Django Unchained might be a great film, but perhaps not a phenomenal one like most of Tarantino’s work.
It might be that the source of the problem is in the concept, one that Tarantino has been stuck on for three (well four) films now. Kill Bill parts 1 and 2 were about a woman taking revenge on her former employer. Inglorious Basterds had a squadron of Jews hunting down Nazis. Here, we have a freed slave executing all the racists in the 1850s South.
It’s not that revenge is a bad idea for a film. The concept works quite well and few do it better than Tarantino. It’s just that here, it all seems to be getting just a touch predictable.
Django (Jamie Foxx) has the good fortunate of meeting Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) on a cold, chain-gang trek through Texas one night. The good doctor kills his captors, and hires Django to help him identify three criminals, revealing that he’s a bounty hunter paid to do that sort of thing by the government.
After Django proves particularly adept at the task, Schultz takes him on as a partner, and the two spend the winter hunting down outlaws all over the land. When the snow clears, Schultz promises to help Django find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold after the pair tried to run away back on the plantation where they met. They discover she’s now the property of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who operates a plantation called “Candyland” where he has slaves fight to the death for sport. Schultz and Django must come up with a plan to relieve him of Broomhilda, without having the law hunt them down afterward.
As expected from Tarantino, the film is expertly shot and scored, and would be one of the best westerns out over the past few decades even if it wasn’t one of the only westerns out over the past few decades. The film is incredibly effective at showing the shocking horrors of slavery, and though Tarantino tends to exaggerate, things really were that bad with knife-point castration, barbed metal head cages and death by attack dogs routine occurrences a century and a half ago.
In terms of the cast, Christoph Waltz is hilarious as Schutlz, even if he is more or less playing a bizarro world version of Col. Hans Landa from Basterds. He always has a smile on his face, speaks overly formally and is uber-polite in every situation, yet has the capacity for extraordinary violence. Here he’s a good guy, instead of bad, but acting the exact same way, he probably easily could have been the villain here. I’m not sure how much evolution there is between Basterds and here for the actor.
The best performance comes from Leonardo DiCaprio as the ostentatious Candie. For an actor we all love for the most part, it’s hard to imagine he could get us to hate him this much, but he is a vile, slimy sonofabitch and there will be fewer movie characters you want dead quicker than him. Samuel L. Jackson is another surprising bright spot as house slave Steven. He’s a foil to Django once he shows up, and tries to expose his treachery at every turn, all the while laughing uproariously at Candy’s jokes and whispering doubts in his ear. I believe the term coined back then was an “Uncle Tom” for black folk to acquiesced to their white owners too much, and Jackson plays one to perfection here.
As for Django himself? I’m not quite sure how I feel about Jamie Foxx in the role. Yes, he is suitably badass, but given a gun and a hat and a Tarantino script, many actors could be. During the film it was hard not to think about what someone like Will Smith might have done with the role (he turned it down) or perhaps Denzel Washington. There just isn’t much to Foxx’s character, and he almost seems out of place in the film in which he stars.
Lastly, there’s the plot, which just seems a touch overly predictable. There’s no real mystery to it the way Kill Bill had us on our toes with new revelations as to the Bride’s past. There are no disjointed timelines like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs to mix up the story. There are less jaw dropping moments than Basterds, and the end up of that film had perhaps the most astonishing, satisfying climax of any film out in a decade.
Django Unchained has an echo of that in the bloody grand finale, but it’s one that we all probably saw coming. Everything leading up to the finale is surprise-free for the most part, and it’s a simple matter of pointing and bad guys, and shooting them. Yes, there are some great dramatic scenes within, but even those don’t quite have the same sort of tension as his past films.
It’s a great film, and a hell of a lot of fun for almost three hours. But it will inevitably be compared to the director’s other work, and the presence of such classics, even a great film can look a bit dim.
4 out of 5 stars