Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s full bodied and bloody take on the spaghetti western with a little 70’s era blaxploitation thrown in. Taking place in the pre-Civil War South, the plot concerns a freed slave who takes revenge on a plantation owner in order to rescue his wife. Our story begins with Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist. He’s now a bounty hunter seeking the Brittle brothers, dangerous outlaws with a price on their heads. Since Django is the only one who can identify the perpetrators, he buys Django, essentially freeing him, and the two set off to find them.
Jaime Foxx is all seething rage with a perpetual scowl across his face as he matures from helpless slave to an avenging superhero. He’s the obvious star but the supporting cast is nothing less than perfection. The movie is stolen by a trio of actors that command attention in every scene they’re in. Christoph Waltz displays a gentle charm as the enlightened German bounty hunter that is both sympathetic and fearsome. Leonardo DiCaprio is the central villain, a hissable plantation owner named Calvin Candie. He’s guilty of a whole slew of offenses, not the least of which includes pitting slaves against each other for gladiator-like competitions to the death. But he spits his declarations with a smooth southern drawl that would just as likely offer his guests a Mint Julep. It’s a spellbinding performance, one that establishes a demented personality. Possibly even more unsettling is Samuel L Jackson as house slave Stephen, obediently loyal to Calvin’s desires but vile and ill-tempered to everyone else. It’s a villain that might trump DiCaprio’s hateful character for selling out his fellow man. He’s respectful to Calvin, but lords it over the rest of the house as an intense individual to be feared. It’s a portrayal of a slave unlike any I’ve ever seen.
Tarantino has an ear for conversation and his comedic instincts are razor sharp. The opening scene in which Dr. King Schultz buys Django from the Speck brothers is a brilliant start. Schultz’s educated manner when contrasted to the more unsophisticated personalities of the Specks makes for a rather lighthearted negotiation in the midst of tense circumstances. Later a scene in which proto-KKK members complain about the poorly cut eye-holes in their white masks is a model of hilarious writing. No wonder it tied at the St. Louis Film Critics Association for Best Scene of the year. And let’s not forget the assertions of Calvin Candie. Once Leonardo DiCaprio turns the tables on our heroes, he offers his misinformed thoughts regarding cranial anatomy. His frightening and pseudo-intellectual ideas are so shockingly bizarre, you are compelled to listen.
It’s Tarantino, so of course we’re going to get anachronistic style choices. But there are some seriously questionable music selections going on. It’s all over the place. Since Django Unchained is inspired in part by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian Western Django, it makes perfect sense he would appropriate Luis Enrique Bacalov’s theme song over the opening credits. Even Jim Croce’s ‘I Got a Name’ has enough country western flair to sound germane to the time period, but rapper Rick Ross’ ‘100 Black Coffins’ is painfully out of place. It takes you completely out of the mid 1800’s and into 2012. Ditto the mashup of James Brown’s ‘The Payback’ and Tupac Shakur’s ‘Untouchable’ called ‘Unchained‘. It’s a rousing rap blast, but it doesn’t’ do the picture any favors.
Like Tarantino’s earlier revisionist history flick Inglourious Basterds was to Nazis, Django Unchained offers a generous helping of comeuppance to slaveholders and their kin. But this isn’t as inventive as that film. Don’t get me wrong. Django is good. It’s filled with great dialogue. And it’s acted to the hilt by the entire cast with Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson mesmerizing in their parts, any of which, are worthy of an Academy Award. But the nearly 3 hour running time really meanders. One might argue that this revenge fantasy doesn’t really get started until well past the halfway point where the real purpose of rescuing Django’s wife Broomhilda becomes the goal. Then the whole production climaxes in the most mundane way possible: a shootout. As Django delivers restitution to each baddie, their bodies shot through with holes, blood literally gushing out like fountains. It’s supposed to be visceral. Lighten up, right? It’s a cartoon! But it’s pretty disturbing too and I don’t care how desensitized to violence you are, if you aren’t at least a little disgusted, you might see a doctor for sociopathic tendencies. But even more problematic, it feels like a cheat – a simplistic shortcut in lieu of a more creative ending that would match the subversiveness of everything that lead up to that moment. Make no mistake, Django Unchained is really entertaining. It just could’ve been so much more.