Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained (Theatrical Review)

Django Unchained (2012)
Action, Comedy, Drama, Western, 165 minutes
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington

It's been almost 24 hours since I saw Quentin Tarantino's latest effort, and I still have mixed feelings. The first thing that you should know is that he is probably my favorite director. While his movies don't quite reach the heights of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., he is responsible for more movies in my Top 20 than any other director. His movies have a unique feel and I love spending time in his worlds.

If you have somehow never seen a Tarantino movie, I should mention that they are not for everyone. All feature a significant amount of violence, although the majority of the situations are so ludicrous that you aren't meant to take things seriously. I would say that every Tarantino movie is, at heart, a comedy, but his brand of comedy is darker than most. It doesn't matter whether you usually don't like war, Westerns, crime, or kung fu movies, because Tarantino creates a genre of his own. Like Monty Python, the humor is extremely silly, but works because of its underlying intelligence.

It's necessary for you to understand the love and respect I have for Tarantino's work in order to appreciate the significance of my eventual rating.

Let's get to Django Unchained.

Settings include Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and the opening scene takes place in 1858 (two years before the Civil War). It's clear from the start that this isn't going to be a conventional story. Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) is a bounty hunter posing as a dentist. We see him free Django from slavers, while giving the remaining captives their freedom and the ability to decide their own fate. Schultz enters into an agreement with Django, and the two spend the remainder of the year together as bounty hunters. Schultz ultimately discovers that Django is seeking his wife, Broomhilda (Washington), and decides to help him. That involves searching every plantation until they find her.

The plot is of little consequence in Django Unchained. Like every other Tarantino movie, this is more about style. If you are looking for plot holes or deep meaning, you have chosen the wrong director. I know that many people will be offended by the subject matter, the violence, and the foul language, but I'm almost certain that Tarantino merely intends to entertain and provide as much fun as possible along the way. I obviously detest the thought of slavery, and people being whipped or murdered, but it wasn't really on my mind as I watched the movie. The tongue-in-cheek tone allowed me to separate the hideous events from any semblance of reality.

The main reason I like Tarantino's work so much is because it is creative, and contains some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear. Those elements are present in Django Unchained, and some scenes and conversations work wonderfully. The bulk of the good scenes involve Christoph Waltz, who is essentially playing Hans Landa. Expect flowery dialogue delivered in a very deliberate way. He can talk his way out of almost any situation and he's full of surprises. If you can't imagine a scene involving the Ku Klux Klan being funny, Tarantino somehow pulls it off.

Foxx does a reasonable job as Django, but I can't help thinking what Will Smith might have done with the role. DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, who owns a plantation and seemingly has no scruples whatsoever. He's probably the best character in the movie with the exception of Schultz. It's always good to see Samuel L. Jackson working with Tarantino, and his performance as Stephen was strong. He plays a complicated character who is difficult to like.

Despite all the familiar elements, Django Unchained often struggles to reach the level of Tarantino's best movies. Tarantino is a master at selecting the right music for a particular scene, but he misses the mark this time. There's nothing to match Bang Bang (Kill Bill), Across 110th Street (Jackie Brown), Cat People (Inglourious Basterds), Stuck in the Middle (Reservoir Dogs), or Dick Dale's Misirlou (Pulp Fiction). I can't think of any meaningful music from Django Unchained, despite the inevitable inclusion of something from Ennio Morricone.

I don't have a thorough understanding of the role of an editor, but I have to wonder how much the absence of Sally Menke hurt the movie. It's the first time Tarantino has made a movie without her, and at 165 minutes, Django Unchained is his longest to date. Would Menke have turned it into a more cohesive story?

I cared about Butch Coolidge, Jackie Brown, The Bride, and Shosanna Dreyfus, but I was never really invested in Django's quest to find his wife. Perhaps it would have worked better if I had been shown something of their history together?

Do you remember the opening scene from Inglourious Basterds in which Hans Landa talks to a French farmer? That's one of the best scenes that Tarantino has ever written and it works because he builds tension throughout. In Django Unchained, the tension is less intense and some of the scenes feel rushed and end prematurely. This is especially true in a scene with DiCaprio, Foxx and Waltz near the end of the movie. In fact, the ending as a whole seems entirely too predictable for something penned by Tarantino.

Tarantino is still playful, clever, creative, funny, and unpredictable, for the most part, but something is slightly off this time. I would say that Django Unchained is his second-weakest film behind Death Proof, but it still might end up as my favorite from 2012 when I have seen it a few times. If you are a Tarantino fan, it's a must-see and an eventual must-own, but it's a bit of a mess if I am honest.

Overall score 4.5/5

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  1. Nice, honest review. Really looking forward to checking this out when it opens here in two weeks!

    1. I expect it will grow on me. There's still plenty to like.

  2. Big Death Proof fan here. It is one of my faves after Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. For The Challenger and the Vanishing Point love alone. :) It is difficult to rank Q as I adore all of his movies period. I haven't seen this as yet, but I know I am going to LOVE it.

    1. I would give all of his films 5/5, with Death Proof getting 4/5 and this 4.5/5. It may grow to 5/5 after I have seen it a few times though. There's plenty to like, but I don't think it flows as well as his films usually do.