It’s funny, I feel like I’ve been writing this review in my head for the past two days, but now that I’m actually putting fingers to keys, all I can think about saying is how much I enjoyed Django Unchained, and how grateful I am that Quentin Tarantino makes movies. As a non-fan of his last film, Inglorious Basterds, I approached Django with tons of hope but just a slight feeling of hesitancy, afraid I was going to get burned again. However, thanks to fantastic performances, Tarantino’s signature dialogue, and just a splash of controversy (okay, more than just a splash) Django had no problem resounding with me and launched itself into the discussion of best movie of 2012.
If you’re here and you’re reading this review, you already know what the film is about so I’ll save you the detailed plot synopsis. The film starts off in 1858, a couple years before the beginning of the Civil War. This is when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter-masked-as-a-dentist, comes across young Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is amongst a group of slaves recently purchased by a couple southern gentlemen. As they trudge through the night, shackled together and lumbering through the woods at their new masters’ request, they meet up with Dr. Schultz, who requests to purchase Django. Words are exchanged and then QT kicks it into high gear right away. This opening scene, while maybe not as bone-chilling as the one in Inglorious Basterds (which had a brilliant opening, but failed to capitalize on it in my opinion, but I admit I need to revisit it – but I doubt it would graduate from “dislike” to “love” upon a second viewing) sets the table for what is to come and it is relatively non-stop excitement.
Schultz and Django begin a trek together, bounty hunting as a team and collecting all of the money that goes along with that. We are integrated into Tarantino’s South very quickly, with “n” words aplenty, and I’ll admit, it is not the easiest thing to hear. Just thinking about the word gives me the chills and here we hear it well over one hundred times. I know much has been discussed in regards to this, from Spike Lee ranting about not going to see it because of its disrespect to his ancestors to Antoine Fuqua (Training Day director) saying that Spike is wrong and that Tarantino “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” but I’ll put it like this, real simply: it’s a historical movie. It is set in a time when the word was used flippantly and while Tarantino may go a little over the top with it (and c’mon, if QT is famous for ANYTHING, it’s his knack for going over the top) the overall feeling I got from it was of necessity for the story he wanted to tell. Could I have done without, let’s say, half of the uses of the word? Absolutely. But I’m also not calling for Tarantino’s head, either. The movie’s overall tone and searing look at slavery creates an atmosphere where it feels appropriate… but just don’t ask me to give you some of the better quotes from the movie, because it’s a safe bet the word was used.
It’s impossible to set diction aside when you’re discussing Tarantino’s movies. His dialogue is so interesting and when it comes from the right actor’s mouth it’s pure cinematic poetry. And in his three leads of Waltz, Foxx, and Leonardo Dicaprio, Tarantino went 3 for 3, striking gold with a cast that was up for the challenge he put before them. Waltz is so good, his enunciation and his intellectual swagger leading to a performance that not only ranks as my favorite of the year, but for the last few years. I cannot express really how much I enjoyed watching him on screen and just thinking about his “now you can go get the Marshall” line makes me smile from ear to ear. He’s met step-for-step by Jamie Foxx, who completely earns every single accolade he might get from his performance. I was skeptical of his casting, frequently calling for Idris Elba instead, but Foxx had me apologizing for that insistence both early and often. The role called for him to be both beaten down and raised up, to be a lowly slave and a conquering hero. Foxx ably does it all.
The flashiest performance, though, was always going to be Leonardo Dicaprio’s Calvin Candie, a regal plantation owner and a real piece of work. Dicaprio appears to have fun acting, something I’m not sure we’ve seen since Catch Me If You Can which was ten years ago. He really is such a good actor and it’s a real shame that he’s never been awarded anything by the Academy. I’m sure the day will come some day, but all I know is that to think of anyone else in this devilish role is ridiculous and Dicaprio is every bit as good as the other two leads. His disadvantage is coming into the film around the halfway point, whereas we have a whole lot more screen time with the other two. But he makes up for it, leading to one helluva scene at a dinner table that is about as intense as it gets. Oh and a scene in a library. Oh and… ah, who am I kidding? They’re all great. Dicaprio really shines here and there’s no getting around that!
I would be terrible at what I do if I didn’t mention the supporting characters, all of which pop up and do amazing work in their time on-screen. Most memorable is easily Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s “right-hand man,” who reminds us that there was a time when Sam Jackson was a bona fide actor. His introduction scene is hilarious and the interaction between Stephen, a slave, and Django, a freed slave being allowed all of the luxuries that go along with that, is priceless. Kerry Washington does little more than provide Django with a beautiful face to save, but when given the opportunity, she brings her “A” game as well. Walton Goggins (Boyd from “Justified”) is awesomely creepy as one of Candie’s lackeys. Cameos from the likes of Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, and even Tarantino himself are welcome sights and they all carry the story along gracefully, never taking away from what we want to see, which is Django’s journey to get back the woman he loves.
There are plenty of Tarantino tropes (to take from a recent debate on a news article posted here) to be seen, what with several quick close-ups and gratuitous violence and seemingly bizarre music choices peppering the film’s nearly-three hour running time. And I loved every single one. It let me know that I was in the hands of a very capable filmmaker and someone who was putting his best product in front of me. There is no doubt in my mind that THIS was the film that Tarantino wanted to put out there. Could he have edited down some of the scenic shots along Schultz/Django’s journey? Sure. Could the guy that Django uses as a human shield only be shot twice instead of eighteen? You bet. But it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without that, and for that, we thank you.
It’s always great to see a craftsman at the top of their game and while I’m not going so far as to say this is Tarantino’s best (at least not YET – multiple viewings and more thought have to go into a decision like that!) this is certainly up there at the top. It has everything a QT fan would want and it features fantastic performances that are among the best this year has provided us. I remember when I finished Inglorious Basterds, I felt bummed out and only hoped for another Tarantino film to come along to hopefully wash the bad taste out of my mouth. However, after Django concluded, all I could think about was two things: 1) I can’t wait to see this again and 2) I can’t wait to see what he does next. That’s definitely a successful movie-going experience and in Django Unchained, just like the last man or woman standing in a QT film, Tarantino has emerged victorious in the end.