If it's crap ... We'll tell you
From a concept on paper, the idea of Quentin Tarantino tackling a true western film should be right up his alley. After all, his films are littered with homages (or straight theft, depending on who you ask) to great western films like cinematic shots lifted from The Good the Bad and the Ugly or his use of music from famed composer Ennio Morricone who produced perhaps some of the most iconic themes in classic westerns, such as Two Mules for Sister Sarah. There’s an emphasis on ‘SHOULD.’ This great pedigree SHOULD bring out a great film, Tarantino SHOULD be able to craft a masterpiece with his deft ability to muddle morality and sympathy for his characters, and Django Unchained SHOULD expertly envelop the audience in a world filled with violence, racial injustice, and revenge. Once again, SHOULD is the operative word.
Django Unchained takes place during 1858 in Southern America. The titular character, Django (played by Jaime Foxx) finds himself enslaved, but manages to be freed by Dr. King Shultz – a dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz promises Django that if he identifies the Brittle brothers for his job, then he will help find and free his wife, Broomhilda, (Kerry Washington) from the dredges of slavery. The two then begin a vicious trek across the American South as they encounter all manner of interesting side-characters, chief among them being Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a rich, plantation-owning Francophile, and his suspicious house servant, Stephen (Samuel Jackson).
Narratively speaking, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most linear film to date. It doesn’t hold a fractured story structure like Pulp Fiction so the characters have more time to develop, nor is the focus unevenly split up between characters like in Inglourious Basterds. Django Unchained is all about the story of Django, which is both a blessing and a curse, in this instance. The titular hero goes from meek introvert into a fully-fledged confident gunslinger, and it is satisfying to watch him grow as a character. The development feels natural, but there really isn’t character to Django outside of wanting to find his wife and getting revenge. The film starts off strong with the duo of Django and Schultz in the enthralling tale of the bounty hunter business, but as the second act ends and the third begins, the film seems to lose steam and just merely wrap up the loose threads of plot so that the plot can be over. Jaime Foxx plays the character very well, as he steadily develops into a stoic hero, but there just isn’t a lot for him to grasp for the role. Kerry Washington is criminally underused in the film, as her only acting requirements seem to entail screaming and crying when appropriate. An actress of her caliber deserves far more screentime, development, and attention than what was given. It doesn’t help that Washington and Foxx don’t have many scenes together to give you ANY impression of their relationship together other than that they love each other.
Christophe Waltz is brilliant as the fastidious and proper Schultz, and acts as both a peer and mentor to Django. In the harshest environment one can think of for a black man in the late 19th century, he’s a refreshing personality as he offers sincerity, warmth, and kindness to Django. The character seems to be something of an anomaly in Tarantino’s roster of written individuals as there’s a core of human decency and respect in every aspect of his being rather than a person living in shades of gray. Leonardo DiCaprio always brings his A-game, but here, he brings his A+ game. As the loquacious and pompous Candie, DiCaprio plays him as an exuberant king of a man, confident in his reign over his family and slave workers. Like the character of Schultz, Candie is more of an obvious evil sort for a Tarantino film, but that doesn’t take away from the hypnotic performance DiCaprio gives as he seamlessly switches from jovial and friendly, to menacing and terrifying. However, for getting such a high billing, DiCaprio isn’t in the movie for as long as one would hope and as the story progresses, whenever he’s not onscreen, his absence is felt. Conversely, Samuel Jackson has a much larger role than trailers and TV spots would have one to believe. Jackson delivers a great performance as a black servant with no ulterior motive than to please his white master, and becoming bewildered with the empowerment and status of Django.
And now we come to the elephant in the room: the “N word." At first, when the movie goes into the first act, the word seems to be used sparingly for effect, which works to a great extent. However, Tarantino decides to lay moderation to bed and goes bananas with the word, easily using it 20 times in a row for one particular scene. I’m not an expert in 19th century customs in conversation, but in this film, it seems excessive to the point making the word lose all it's impact and meaning when it's said more as a common pronoun than an insult. Fortunately, most of Tarantino’s dialog still carries that same wit and charm all Tarantino films are branded with and it’s especially prevalent in this film. Scenes of knee-slapping hilarity are placed right next to slowly building moments of tension and dread; this, however, causes a problem. Tarantino can’t seem to pick a tone to take for the film as he indecisively flips back and forth between serious gravitas, action-comedy trappings, and goofy cartoonish violence. While the famed director/writer has an ear for music, there are one or two selections in the film that don’t seem to gel well with the scene and the tone established for it. There are scenes of sweeping cinematic beauty of nature as Robert Richardson returns as the cinematographer that capture the natural splendor of America from snow-covered plains teeming with elk and buffalo to gloriously green tended plantations that seemingly stretch on for miles.
Although the late editor Sally Menke did exceptional work with Tarantino, Fred Raskin has risen to the challenge providing the movie with an energetic pace that occasionally fits the chaotic tone of this interpretation of the Wild West. Tarantino also keeps some other of his cinematic trappings alive as Django Unchained is an excessively violent, foul-mouthed look at the darker sides of humanity, so those who are uneasy around the more negative aspects of stories may want to look elsewhere for their cinematic enjoyment. Thankfully, Tarantino and company don’t overrun the film with actor or movie name dropping moments that only seemed to showcase how much the director/writer knows about pop culture. In comparison to the rest of Tarantino’s filmography, Django Unchained proves itself far less morally confronting than expected. Inglourious Basterds questioned the role of vengeance and micro-versus-macro levels of sympathy in a war, but Django is not burdened with that type of thematic content, merely saying that slavery was bad and the people behind it treated their slaves as sub-human; it’s a point I agree with, but it just seems like a hot button point-of-view that won’t exactly get people talking about after the credits role.
Django Unchained is a film that’s both the best and worst of Tarantino’s style. When it’s great, it’s terrific. When it’s bad, oh…it’s bad. Great acting and dialog is marred by questionable choices in story structure, character development, and an inconsistent tone, making it a moderately enjoyable movie that could have been Tarantino’s best work to date. One can’t help but think of the possibilities Tarantino SHOULD have done with this material.