The name's Djudge Clark Douglas.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance.
"Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in the deep south circa 1858. Professional bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, Carnage) is hunting down a group of criminals known as The Brittle Brothers. In order to properly identify his targets, he enlists the services of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, Ray), offering to give Django his freedom in exchange for his assistance. Django agrees, but once the mission is completed he discovers that bounty hunting is a particularly lucrative and satisfying profession. The newly-freed slave becomes Dr. Schultz's business partner, and before long the two have developed a reputation as one of the best bounty hunting teams in the business. However, Django's ultimate goal is a daunting one: to rescue his long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, Mother and Child) from the clutches of wicked plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island).
Over the years, Quentin Tarantino has established himself as patron saint of trashy cinema. He dismisses self-important arthouse fare while gleefully endorsing scuzzy Roger Corman flicks. He'll take Sergio Corbucci over The Searchers; he talks about Switchblade Sisters with as much enthusiasm as other directors talk about the the films of Fellini. His fondness for disreputable B-movies can be seen in each and every one of his films, as the director pays loving homage to the spaghetti westerns, grindhouse flicks and cheap kung fu movies that are so dear to his heart. Even so, the quality and depth of most of Tarantino's work far transcends his influences, as "B-movie homage" is only one of the multiple levels on which his work operates. That's certainly the case in Django Unchained, a slice of revisionist history that makes specific callbacks to countless movies (the original Franco Nero vehicle Django included) but which doesn't really resemble any of them. The only thing that truly feels like a Tarantino flick is another Tarantino flick.
Speaking of which, the film Django Unchained truly resembles is Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's other revisionist historical revenge epic. Like that movie, it offers a presentation of history as it should have been rather than as it really was, but this time around he's created something that is simultaneously more ambitious and considerably messier.
There's no question that Django Unchained is the sloppiest film of the director's career, lacking the clockwork precision of his other efforts. Perhaps it's that the movie was originally intended as a two-part epic and had to be trimmed (traces of lost subplots can be seen here and there), perhaps it's that Tarantino is working without his editor Sally Menke for the first time (she tragically passed away in the fall of 2010), perhaps it's the way Tarantino was working on a tight deadline (he was still shooting and making rewrites after the first theatrical trailer was released) or perhaps it's some combination of all of these elements. Even so, the relative messiness seems to suit Tarantino's angry, funny, soulful, harrowing, thrilling sermon on an unresolved subject. Some situations call for a sniper rifle; others for a fistful of dynamite.
At its core (and among other things, of course), Django Unchained is a superhero origin story, a slice of American mythology that explicitly presents Django as a southern Siegfried (or in a surprisingly literal sense, Shaft). The moments of frightening realism Tarantino injects (including a nearly-unwatchable "Mandingo fight" and a similarly brutal scene in which a runaway slave is torn apart by dogs) effectively disguise the film's comic book nature, but by the final act it's clear that the director is cathartically inserting a larger-than-life figure into a real-life context. Of course, the immediate comparison one makes when examining a strong, silent hero in a western movie setting is Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, but that's a comparison Tarantino pointedly dismisses: Django reminds those around him of his name repeatedly, even going so far as to spell it out at one point ("The D is silent"). Further emphasis is added by a scene underscored by Jim Croce's ever-affecting "I Got a Name" (one of the film's loveliest little sequences). Django isn't just another nameless slave marginalized by American society; he's a man with an identity, a long-lost wife and a holy mission being carried out in necessarily unholy fashion. He will not be ignored. As both Django and Calvin Candie declare (albeit for entirely different reasons), he's one in 10,000.
When Tarantino won an Academy Award for his Django Unchained screenplay, he spoke in typically self-aggrandizing fashion about his gift for creating memorable characters: "I actually think that like…if people are knowing my movies 30 or 50 years from now it's gonna be because of the characters that I created, and I only really got one chance to get it right. I have to cast the right people to make those characters come alive and hope they live a long time…and boy, this time I did it." Quibbles about the director's lack of modesty aside, he's absolutely correct. This is a film filled to the brim with rich, complex characters speaking dialogue engaging enough to make 165 minutes feel like 90.
Though the director initially envisioned Will Smith in the title role, Jamie Foxx proves capable of handling the part and turns in one of his strongest performances. It's an atypically subtle turn from the actor, as he quietly makes the transition from beaten-down slave to swaggering western hero without missing a beat. Leonardo DiCaprio finds some new notes with his portrait of Calvin Candie, delivering the most thoroughly despicable villain in Tarantino's filmography (which is really saying something) and indulging a wickedly playful side that we haven't really seen from him before. Samuel L. Jackson offers the film's most complex and troubling performance as Stephen, Calvin's alarmingly loyal house slave. It's a turn I appreciated more on a second viewing, as one is able to see the character's hidden depths a bit more clearly in retrospect. For my money, the best performance comes from Christoph Waltz, who has quickly become one of cinema's most compelling actors. Waltz more or less owns the first hour of the film, delivering his florid monologues with relish. Dr. Schultz is a man who seems to delight in exploring the complexities of the English language in a part of America where such fluency isn't particularly appreciated, and the good doctor's delight is seemingly only matched by Waltz's joy at getting to perform Tarantino's typically savory dialogue. You'll find other solid supporting turns from Tarantino regulars and newcomers alike, but these four characters form the core of the film.
Tarantino's gift for assembling memorable music has been evident from the beginning, but Django offers his most eclectic and satisfying soundtrack since Jackie Brown. It's a musical landscape that finds room for Ennio Morricone and Rick Ross, for Jerry Goldsmith and James Brown, for John Legend and Johnny Cash. In an unusual turn of events, numerous artists were inspired to write songs for the film after seeing the trailer, supplying Tarantino with a handful of new material to mix in with the older stuff. Unusual, yes, but not surprising: few directors can showcase a tune quite as a memorably as QT. Not everything submitted made the cut (the director couldn't find a place for a melancholy Frank Ocean track), but what's here is genuinely exceptional.
Django Unchained (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. It's one of the director's most visually rich films; loaded with sprawling southern vistas and beautifully-constructed interiors. Detail is strong throughout, and the generally bright colors (including quite a bit of blood red) have a lot of pop. The darker scenes (such as the opening sequence and the satirically-inclined KKK scene) also fare pretty well, benefiting from exceptional shadow delineation and deep blacks. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong as well, offering a lot of kick during some of the louder sequences and really giving those soundtrack selections the oomph they deserve. It captures the little details of the quieter moments pretty well, which is a good thing considering just how many quiet moments there are in Tarantino's typically dialogue-heavy flick. The supplemental package, however, is mostly a bust: three technically-minded featurettes ("Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained," "Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained" and "The Costume Designs of Sharon Davis"—all of which are decent, but none of which touch on the film's most intriguing elements), a brief soundtrack promo, a DVD copy and a digital copy. Tarantino has hinted at the idea of releasing an extended cut at some point in the future, so perhaps that version of the flick will receive a meatier supply of bonus features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If I have one significant disappointment with the film, it's that Tarantino's talent for writing rich, compelling female characters (as evidence, see every other film he's made aside from the guys-only Reservoir Dogs) is nowhere to be found. Kerry Washington's Broomhilda is merely a damsel in distress. While that's probably intentional given the film's mythological inclinations, it's still a bit of a letdown that none of the female characters seem to have any real depth. Perhaps Broomhilda (or some of the other, nearly-deleted female characters played by the blink-and-you'll-miss-them Amber Tamblyn and Zoe Bell) were substantial characters at one point in the ever-shifting production process, but that's not the case in the final theatrical cut.
Django Unchained is yet another troubling, exhilarating gem from Mr. Tarantino. It's not a film for everyone—it's certainly easy enough to imagine plenty of viewers being annoyed, offended or even enthusiastically misinterpreting what the film has to offer—but it's a great film nonetheless. While I still yearn to see QT deliver another film with the soulful maturity of Jackie Brown, it's hard to deny the fact that his latest flick is another genuinely remarkable effort that displays a ridiculous amount of ambition. Bravo.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
Review content copyright © 2013 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.