Quentin Tarantino has very quickly, but not so quietly, found a new niche for his filmmaking talents as a teller of tall tales with a historical bent. He’s less interested in historical accuracy than he is historical tomfoolery, but that never lessens the sheer entertainment he finds in mankind’s relatively recent foibles and misdeeds. From Inglourious Basterds’ band of World War II Nazi-killers to his latest film’s vengeful slave turned bounty hunter, Tarantino has shown a knack for fitting his charismatic and electric characters into unexpected historical contexts with entertaining as hell results.
It’s 1858 in America, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a dentist on a mission. It’s light on tooth decay, heavy on bloodshed and utterly unrelated to the field of dentistry. He’s a bounty hunter whose latest targets, The Brittle Brothers, present a challenge in that he has no idea what they look like. Undeterred, Schultz acquires, apprentices and befriends a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who can identify the brothers. In exchange the ex-dentist will help the newly freed Django reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who currently belongs to a cruel but undeniably charming plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What follows is a tale that would have made American History class a hell of a lot more memorable as Schultz and Django cut a bloody swath across the post-Civil War South through racists, enforcers and recognizable TV actors (Tom Wopat! Lee Horsley!) from decades past. The cinematic violence is paired with Tarantino’s typically sharp and often hilarious dialogue, an eclectic and anachronistic soundtrack and a roster of actors as thrilled to be onscreen as viewers will be watching them. Despite its subject matter Django Unchained is a somewhat slighter film than its predecessor and sometimes feels too comically broad and bloated, but as with David Fincher and the Coen brothers even Tarantino’s lesser films often exceed the best that others have to offer.
Schultz and Django work their way through a handful of wanted men, and while some of it is accomplished via montage and time lapse we’re shown Django’s entry into the business by way of the Brittle Brothers in vibrant detail. They’re tracked to Big Daddy’s (Don Johnson) plantation, a bright and faux-happy land that a racist, meat-eating incarnation of Colonel Sanders would be happy to call home. The laughs are plentiful, but when the violence comes it’s with the brutal crack of a whip and the generous spurting of dark red blood (done practically as opposed to via CGI).
Two of Tarantino’s biggest strengths have always been his scripts and his casts so it’s no surprise that both are highlights again here. Script-wise the film boasts some brilliant and eminently quotable dialogue that shies away from punch lines as infrequently as it does the n-word. It’s laugh out loud funny, but while it (unsurprisingly) finds much to exploit in the world of slavery, lynchings and casual murder it still allows for some serious and harsh exchanges and instances. It’s most definitely not for the squeamish.
All three leads give fine and fun performances and truly embrace their characters with enthusiasm. Waltz gets many of the best lines and proves again how wonderfully suited he is for Tarantino’s words. Foxx does well too as he manages the tightrope between the solemnity of the subject matter and the playfulness of the execution. If there’s a stand out though it’s DiCaprio’s turn as the malicious and easily offended Candie. Subtlety is not an option and DiCaprio lets his inner evil loose with a mustache-twirling, scene-stealing performance that refuses to let the fun stray too far from the cruelty. The supporting cast is equally memorable with appearances by Walton Goggins, Franco Nero, Michael Parks, James Remar (twice!) and others. Last but not least, Samuel L Jackson plays the film’s darkest bad guy (pun not intended) as Candie’s well-treated house servant who turns other slaves in for severe punishment at the drop of an N-bomb.
As entertaining as it is though, the film is a step back from the multi-layered high of Inglourious Basterds. While that film has loads of surface level entertainment it also features a smart subtext on movies and movie-making that runs parallel to its tale of Nazi scalping and familial revenge. Django is all surface by comparison. Clearly there’s a none too subtle criticism of slavery and racism, but that’s more common sense than commentary.
It also has pacing issues most notable when Tarantino brings the movie to a stirring, crimson-colored conclusion only to let it keep going for another twenty-five odd minutes. Prior to the film’s natural end there’s only one scene that probably should have hit the cutting room floor (even if it is a very funny ode to Blazing Saddles), but this near thirty minutes of extra ending marks the first time that the film begins to feel long. There’s a temptation to blame the absence of his longtime editor Sally Menke, but it’s clear the excess is all due to Tarantino. The section contains laughs and thrills to be sure, but it still feels unnecessary.
Still, not every film needs to be a masterpiece (self-declared or otherwise). Sometimes ‘damn good’ is more than good enough.
The Upside: Very funny; violence is often ridiculous and wonderfully bloody; actors are having an infectiously great time; damn nice seeing amble blood squibs used instead of CGI
The Downside: Runs twenty or so minutes too long; comedy often feels too broad; lacks additional subtext; subterfuge used against Mr. Candie seems wholly unnecessary and illogical; someone needs to tell Tarantino that his cameos are his films’ low point
On the Side: The role of Django was originally intended for Will Smith, but the actor decided to make After Earth with M. Night Shyamalan instead, so everyone be sure to send a Thank You note to Mr. Shyamalan