Of all the A-list directors working today, Quentin Tarantino seems the least likely to have made it to that lofty spot. Yes, he has a knack for writing snappy dialogue and putting together great soundtracks, but because his career has been based on updating B-level (or below) movies from the ’60s and ’70s, his ascension into the upper echelon of Hollywood is a little shocking.
He’s back at it again with Django Unchained, a concept that finds him treading ultra-tricky territory. It follows two men — Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the bounty hunter who freed him.
Schultz’s initial goal is to have Django help him with a particularly troublesome bounty, until he learns about Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Thanks to Django’s increasing gun skills and Schultz’s softening heart, the two of them set out to rescue Broomhilda from the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Its recent nomination for Best Drama at the Golden Globes notwithstanding, the film is essentially an action comedy.
On the surface, this film has much in common with Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds. Both are essentially revenge stories, but instead of a group of American Jews hunting Nazis, this time it’s a former slave taking down slave owners.
There’s little guilt in the audience cheering for such things, because those two groups are among the most reviled in human history.
If Django Unchained had just stayed on that path, it probably would have succeeded as much as Basterds. Where Tarantino goes wrong is in his depiction of brutality toward slaves. Naturally, a film set around slavery can’t avoid such a thing, but the level of violence he shows in those situations should give anyone pause.
Its recent nomination for Best Drama at the Golden Globes notwithstanding, the film is essentially an action comedy. Tarantino’s script is full of humorous lines, and the majority of the violence is played to incite an enthusiastic response from the audience.
But the handful of scenes that show slaves being tortured are jarring not only for their intensity, but also because they’re so at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. It’s extremely difficult to go from a lighthearted scene to one where slaves are beating each other to death — and back again.
This is not Schindler’s List or Roots; showing us the complete horrors of slavery here isn’t an educational tool. Rather, Tarantino almost seems to implicate the audience, because the scenes are served up alongside otherwise highly entertaining stuff.
It’s here where Tarantino seems to be missing former editor Sally Menke, who died in 2010, the most. Editing those scenes so that the violence is mostly implied would have helped matters greatly. Instead, new editor Fred Raskin lets them play out to an uncomfortable degree, making the return to frivolity extremely difficult.
New editor Fred Raskin lets the violent scenes play out to an uncomfortable degree, making the return to frivolity extremely difficult.
This is surprising because Tarantino has always been great at balancing tone. The majority of his films are dialogue-driven, with moments of violence used to punctuate scenes. The proportion of violence to dialogue is much higher in Django, with Tarantino using the Western theme to try and reach Sam Peckinpah levels of fake blood.
The dialogue is up to Tarantino’s usual standards, though, especially coming out of the mouths of great actors like Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio. The only caveat is the prolific — and I do mean prolific — use of N-word. Even more than violence against slaves, that word is unavoidable, given the time and place in which the story takes place. But scarcely a sentence goes by before it’s uttered again, often multiple times in succession.
One of the biggest pleasures of the film is seeing the number of familiar and semi-familiar actors Tarantino convinced to be in the movie, even for miniscule roles. Actors Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern and Jonah Hill pop up in brief cameos, impacting the film while barely breaking a sweat.
The three main actors do their best to make the film rise above its unsavory elements. Foxx is dang near perfect as Django, evolving the character from a frightened runaway to an ultra-confident avenger. Waltz’s delivery is just as smooth and entrancing as it was in Basterds, with the added benefit of him playing the hero instead of the villain.
DiCaprio has been getting Oscar buzz for “his first true villain role,” even though he’s played his fair share of morally dubious characters. While DiCaprio’s performance is as strong as ever, he never truly stands out thanks to the presence of Foxx, Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Candie’s head house slave, Stephen. In a way, Stephen is the biggest villain of the movie, and Jackson plays him for all he’s worth.
While Tarantino swings and misses on certain key elements, the film is still as reliably entertaining as we’ve come to expect from the writer/director. He’s an audacious talent, and that daring nature has never been on fuller display than in Django Unchained.