Following up his wildly acclaimed 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino returns to the big screen in 2012 with Django Unchained, a sizzling genre exercise that allows the filmmaker to check off a box that has eluded him thus far in his career: the western. It’s one of QT’s most direct and linear productions to date, but as you might suspect, this isn’t your average cowboy tale. Stuffed with great performances, impeccable direction, and an amazing screenplay, the film might be a bit too stuffed; it drags a bit in some sections, but don’t let its runtime scare you away. This is one of the very best movies to hit theaters this year.
Tarantino is on a tear with revisionist history after this film and Inglourious Basterds, and it appears that viewing cultural enemies like Nazis, or in this case, slave owners, down the barrel of a gun fits right in with the director’s style. He offers a spaghetti western story wrapped in his familiar pop sensibilities, a crowd pleasing tale that pulses with the boiling blood of revenge. It’s a simple tale well told, and though it runs a bit long at over two and a half hours, the movie never fails to draw in its audience. Like a masked bandit during a train robbery, Tarantino holds us captive as he takes us through the American South just two years shy of the Civil War as we follow his almost mythical hero on his rise from slave to one of the biggest badasses of the director’s entire filmography.
Jamie Foxx is terrific, giving his best performance since 2004’s Collateral as the title character. He’s fiery, quick on the draw, and a bit of a rouge, traits which play to the actor’s strengths and result in a great character. His transformation from slave to bounty hunter is nearly instantaneous, and I was thankful that we didn’t have to sit through endless montages of Django improving his accuracy as the story goes on; he’s already a natural. And though the character doesn’t go through a very pronounced arc throughout the film, his dogged persistence and ingenuity make up for it. We pretty much know how this is going to play out, but Foxx makes it fun to watch nonetheless.
Christoph Waltz – the Austrian actor Tarantino plucked from obscurity and turned into an international superstar with the role of Hans Landa in Basterds - is a delight to watch as Dr. King Schultz, the dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who takes Django under his wing. He delivers Tarantino’s dialogue like no one else can, and he’s magnetic and mesmerizing as a good guy in this movie. He’s also absolutely hilarious, providing many of the movie’s biggest laughs. His chemistry with Foxx was tangible, and he also played well with the wide-eyed Washington, who does a great job with a small part as Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays slave owner Calvin Candie, the film’s main villain, and while many have been heaping praise on Leo’s performance, I think if anyone should be in talks to receive acting awards here, it should be Waltz. (Keep in mind that DiCaprio is my favorite actor working in Hollywood today, so I’m not saying that lightly.) Leo was solid for sure, but Waltz was downright legendary. DiCaprio clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play against type in such eccentric fashion, and the problem with Candie might actually be that he wasn’t quite bad enough. Yes, he does horrendously terrible things, but in a Tarantino film, you’d expect his level of villainy to be so palpable that it’s nearly unbearable; he takes pleasure in other people’s pain, but never reaches that legendary status. Samuel L. Jackson appears late in the movie as Stephen, the head slave at Candie’s plantation, and though I wouldn’t say he steals the film outright, he at least grabs it and makes a break for the door. It’s likely the most fun he’s had on screen in a while, and he gets to shine in some killer moments.
The movie is shockingly funny; not “shockingly” because it’s a Tarantino film (his films are often filled with iconic comedic moments), but because the premise taken at face value could imply a very serious and totally different movie than this one turns out to be. But I laughed more here than I did in many of this year’s full on comedies, which is a testament to Tarantino’s skills as a writer and his ability to juggle tone. He gives the film real stakes and some serious dramatic moments, but also doesn’t shove his head so far up his own ass that he can’t recognize the potential for hilarity. When a group of KKK members have a detailed five minute conversation about whether or not they should wear masks during an upcoming raid, it’s the perfect blend of social commentary, great writing, and laugh out loud comedy that only Tarantino can create.
My biggest complaint is the pacing slows way down when the main characters reach Candieland, and though the film didn’t ever lose me completely, it seemed as if it could have lost twenty more minutes on the cutting room floor and been better off because of it. The first hour whips past, building relationships and setting up the main rescue mission, but once the stakes are in place and the plan is in motion, things slow to crawl. Until, that is, one of the most impressively staged gunfights of the past few years rips through the second half of the movie, leaving piles of bodies and buckets of blood in its wake. It’s a hell of a wake-up call for those who may have grown tired of the battle of wits taking place between the main characters as they slyly talked their way around their real intentions in Candieland, and when those shots ring out, Tarantino makes sure that this is a scene that you come out of the theater excited to see again.
Django Unchained is a wonderful mix of exploitation, western, and revenge films, and though it doesn’t have too many narrative surprises, it definitely lives up to the hype. In a year in which many high profile movies didn’t meet lofty expectations, it’s nice to finally feel blown away in a theater again. It’s still a little early for me to rank this among QT’s other work, but I have no problem saying that it’s absolutely one of the best movies of 2012. This is the one I’ve been waiting for all year, and it looks like audiences are about to get a hell of a Christmas present when this movie opens on December 25th. Until next time…