What do I say about this movie? Well, for starters I guess I should mention that I’m not a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction had its moments, but I’m not among those in love with it. I didn’t particularly like Inglorious Basteurds, and I’ve only seen pieces of Kill Bill. So there’s that.
But what Django Unchained proves, if nothing else, is that Tarantino certainly has a style all his own, and for that he should be commended. No one else is making movies that look like his.
I guess I liked Django – to a point. You could describe it as quirky, but that would imply some sort of benign, cute oddity. This is more like a slap in the face. Time and again I found myself saying, “What the eff was that?” and laughing while wondering if that was really the reaction I wanted to have to whatever just happened. Textbook Tarantino gore is in full effect, though mercifully it’s not something that’s ultra-prevalent at any given moment.
More intriguing is both the writing and the cinematography. My favorite character by far is Dr. King Schultz, played by Christolph Waltz. Schultz is a smooth-talking bounty hunter who is companion to the titular Django (played by Jamie Foxx). Any dialogic interaction among characters in this film is a treat, and a lot of that is due to the keen writing.
Which is not to ignore the acting. Waltz and Foxx, along with Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner and chief villain Calvin Candie, all deserve awards nominations (in the supporting, leading, and supporting actor categories, respectively) and it won’t be a surprise to me at all if at least one of them wins. Waltz’s Schultz is a delightful mix of bubbly, proper, and ruthless. Foxx delivers a wonderfully understated performance that fits perfectly with the pre-Civil War time period of the film, and DiCaprio’s Cadie is sickly sweet, a near perfect adversary.
On reflection, there’s no part of Django Unchained that sticks out as particularly bad. For all its over-the-top ridiculousness, the subject matter of slavery and the cruelties therein related leave the film surprisingly grounded and heartfelt. I think it’s that all the ridiculousness eventually wears thin.
I suppose a plot synopsis might be in order at some point (minor spoilers ahead). Django is a slave recruited by Schultz to help identify a target. Django takes to bounty hunting, and Schultz frees Django and the two work together. Eventually Schultz, moved by a sense of respect and friendship agrees to help Django track down and rescue his wife, which puts them on collision course with Calvin Candie. They pose as traders interested in acquiring one of Candie’s fighting slaves, are eventually found out, and all hell breaks loose before Django is eventually able to rescue his wife.
Up through the first meeting with Candie I was pretty well on board. Tarantino’s style still isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it was fun, amusing, and certainly unique. Up until that point, the quirkiness was endearing. But this is a long film, coming in at about two hours, forty minutes, and it got old. The plot was moving in new and interesting directions. The pacing was fine. The characters and dialogue were compelling. The action was excellent. The cinematography was beautiful (I still need to talk about that, don’t I?) And yet the film felt like a one trick pony. Getting slapped stopped being attention grabbing and started being annoying, and that is the single great problem with this film.
So about that cinematography. In short, it was phenomenal. Cinematography isn’t something that usually jumps out at me, but it did here. Forget the zoom homages to old-school spaghetti westerns. Time and again I noticed the way shots were framed because it was so cool, so well done. It didn’t distract from the film; it enhanced it. Often it had to do with character placement, and the relation of people in the foreground and background, or on opposite sides of the screen. I guess that sounds a bit mundane when I try to describe it here, but trust me, it was very cool. Best cinematography I’ve seen in a film this year.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Although Django Unchained still isn’t quite the sort of thing that leaves me always wanting more, I recognize the brilliance both in the stylistic uniqueness that permeates all aspects of this film and the technical ability to make that style look really, really good. The writing, acting, and cinematography are all huge plusses, and the subject matter keeps the film very emotionally grounded despite the near incessant stream of the (at least) marginally ridiculous. That ridiculousness grows tired and the film feels too long, but as one of my roommates very aptly put it, Django Unchained is both “Tarantino at his best and Tarantino at his worst.” I guess how much you like this movie ultimately depends on how you feel about that incessant crazy “WTF?” style. It got old for me by the last third of the film, which soured me a bit on the entire experience, but the film does so much right that it deserves the awards talk it’s been getting.