"Django Unchained" Is Tarantino's Southern, For Better or Worse Review

Continuing to offer brutal yet riotous amends to history, Quentin Tarantino rides into town with his head held high bearing Django Unchained, a “Southern” that is all Tarantino, ambition, gusto and flaws all bearing fruit in his longest picture yet. A revisionist Western that moves the action to the Old South and pits a freed slave against a satanic plantation owner, Django is violent, funny and moving, often within the same scene. That’s the gift and genius of Tarantino and although the film is also scattered and overlong, with each act playing disparately and making for an uneven whole, the result is one of the year’s most compelling.

On a chilly night in Texas circa 1858, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates Django (Jamie Foxx) and offers the latter a deal: track down the Brittle Brothers and walk away a free man. Schultz, who masquerades as a dentist, is a skilled gunfighter and a foreigner in a land beset by slavery, a state that does not agree with the elegant German. Django, who has a very personal history with the Brittles, agrees and under Schultz's tutelage, begins to make a trade as a bounty hunter.

It could be a good life but the former slave longs for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). When Schultz locates her as property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), he and Django offer up a ruse to get Candie’s attention and make their way into the depths of Candyland, the plantation where Cavil holds sway over numerous slaves, none more visible than Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), an ancient house slave afforded the opportunity to speak freely. Stephen’s fervent loyalty to Calvin and his visible distaste for the other slaves mask a considerably more complex means of survival, but I will say no more.

Tarantino’s cast of choice all deliver top-notch performances, with Foxx acquitting admirably as a steely man bent on vengeance and thrust into circumstances where he must play a part at odds with his very being. Waltz is tremendous, making the dialogue sing and embodying fully a positive character, a man of morals and ideals seemingly incapable of traditional villainy (though his bounty hunting tactics are uncompromisingly brutal). DiCaprio is working hard here, clearly enjoying inhabiting Calvin Candie’s villainous bigot, his tobacco stained teeth showcasing a portion of rot that extends to his very soul. He is not, nor can he be, as memorable as Waltz’s Landa, but he is a Tarantino villain, given to at least one grand showstopping speech, here invoking the topic of phrenology. See for yourselves.

As Broomhilda, Washington is given little to do besides look luminous and practice her German but you understand innately from just a look at her why Django would willingly walk into the lion’s den. But it is Jackson who surprises, with a startling, energetic take on Stephen. It is one of the best performances he’s ever given and a brave one to boot, considering Stephen’s role in the story. Jackson succeeds in creating sympathy for a repulsive man while also hinting at just what masks need be worn when day-to-day survival is hardly a guarantee.

Robert Richardson lenses the film beautifully and the music selections handpicked by Tarantino are unsurprisingly excellent, though nowhere near as memorable as his pre-Basterds pictures. It appears that I’ve done little else but praise the film and it’s true that the strength of Django far outnumber weaknesses – though that doesn’t mean that the less well-handled elements do not take away from the picture.

Despite an episodic first act, this is Tarantino’s most linear picture and as such, offers less in the way of surprises, especially in the second act that telegraphs a confrontation but takes its sweet time building up to it. It is difficult not to note the absence of Sally Menke, Tarantino’s career-long editor, a woman whose skill has uniquely shaped some of the most celebrated motion pictures of the last two decades.

Her tragic passing last year meant that another editor had to step in and Fred Raskin takes the reins for Django. The resulting picture frequently features scenes that unfold in exuberance and go on for longer than expected and sometimes past the point of enjoyment. It is occasionally magisterial but also overindulgent and unnecessary and the running time makes itself felt.

Finally, the third act takes a complete left turn into new territory that doesn’t feel organic but borne out of a desire to wrap up with a massive bang. It’s good fun but definitely make throw a few viewers expecting a more traditional wrap up. Then again, with Tarantino behind the camera, a by-the-numbers ending would be decried as a disappointment and I suppose you can’t please everyone.

Despite these flaws, Django Unchained is required viewing, countless images and inspirations molded together in Tarantino’s mind with a smirking but heartfelt bent at an ugly time in American history. The effects of slavery did not dissipate and most likely will not resolve themselves until complex and yes, black, heroes like Django are not the outliers but just the norm in a vibrant cinematic world allowing for multiple interpretations. Let Django Unchained lead the way.

"Django Unchained" opens December 25, 2012 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama, Western. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Christoph Waltz.

Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.


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