Django Unchained, in the vein of Inglorious Basterds and basically every Tarantino movie ever, is a great film that makes you feel a little guilty for admitting you like it. Of course Tarantino’s brand of violence, inspired in great part by cheap B-grade exploitation movies of the past, is mainstream enough that you can still praise his name and come off looking classy (vouching for I Spit On Your Grave or Toxic Avenger might not earn you as much film cred). But just because Tarantino has successfully found a niche for excessive violence outside of the horror genre doesn’t neccessarily make watching volcano-style gushes of blood and close-up headshots any less gritty.
I begin the review by discussing gore because Django Unchained has a lot of it. It’s mostly what people like to refer to as ‘fun violence’, the kind so unrealistic and over-the-top that it passes the point of disturbance and just becomes silly, and (I begrudgingly admit) enjoyable. But nonetheless, the level of cruelty observed by both Django‘s heroes and villains at times gets a little stomach-turning for even a Tarantino vet such as myself (torn apart by wild dogs, anyone? Not to mention that extremely unsettling scene of a ‘mandingo’ fight to the death.).
Despite, and probably in part because of, Tarantino’s trademark violence, Django delivered and is definitely up there as one of my favorite films of the year (although Basterds still holds its number 1 spot on my list of Tarantino favorites). The story follows Django, who has been sold and separated from his wife after attempting to escape the plantation to which he was enslaved. In an entirely brilliant opening sequence Django is rescued by a German dentist-turned-assassin Dr. King Schultz, who needs Django for information regarding his latest targets. No matter the movie, my face lights up every time Christoph Waltz takes up a frame, so his entrance driving a horse-pulled wagon with a bouncing model tooth, attached to the roof via spring, was especially entertaining.
We then follow Django, who agrees to help Dr. King take out his nefarious victims. We watch as he begins to form a friendship with his savior, and pick up some tricks of the bounty-hunting trade along the way. All this eventually leads to a plot to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Meant to be ‘Brunhilde’, as she was originally owned by a German mistress) from the iniquitous Calvin Candie, a sinister, merciless and incredibly wealth Southern plantation owner.
For a while the scheme appears to be rather successful, but, seeing as it’s a Tarantino movie, you know from the get-go it’s all going to end in a bloody show-down. I’ll just fill you in now; it does just that. And this off-the-rails ending is where Django loses a lot of its steam. The film spends a lot of time building a very compelling relationship and repartee between the two leads, Django and Shultz, which makes for the backbone of the movie. We watch Django rise from overwhelmed and heartbroken slave to fiercely determined and confident killer, and take out some white supremacist baddies along the way. But towards the end, with our main villain already dispatched, we lose what emotional investment we had in the story and the climactic gunfight feels like less of a pay-off and more an ear-splitting, bullet-hole ridden slogfest.
Waltz is fantastic and charismatic as ever in his role as Dr. Schultz, while Leonardo DiCaprio brings to life villainous Calvin Candie as equal parts upper-class brat and depraved scoundrel, with the perfect dash of southern gentleman. Samuel L. Jackson also comes across strong as sinister and cantankerous head house slave Stephen. While I hold ambivalent feelings towards Jamie Foxx as an actor, I feel his portrayal of Django, while not the film’s strongest, is more than adequate for the film’s purpose. He’s got this sort of lost puppy-dog look towards the opening I couldn’t quite see original choice Will Smith pulling off, at the same time imbuing Django with a sort of unconscious, Foxx-esque swagger, more and more clear as the film drags on. He never comes off as a cold-hearted killer, but a victim of circumstance who just happens to be a crazy-good shot. It takes a careful level of confidence, detachment and a pinch of bewilderment to pull that off.
So while I think the film does start to lose steam after a few principle characters are blown away, this act is precipitated by some hilarious and incredibly high-intensity scenes, making Tarantino’s latest work more than worth the watch.