Movie Review: Django Unchained

New Quentin Tarantino. I feel like that's all I need to say.

I think it's safe to say that most people familiar with his work know whether or not they'd label themselves "fans" of Quentin Tarantino. While Django Unchained, the eccentric writer/director's eighth full length feature, may be his funniest and most consistently entertaining work, I can't imagine it changing many minds. If you've ever found yourself turned off by Tarantino's signature style, exaggerated violence and willingness to push mainstream boundaries, Django might end up being the perfect example of everything you dislike about the filmmaker.

In fact, the obvious racial element and unfiltered, unapologetic use of a certain no-no word might make the film Tarantino's most criticizable yet (see Spike Lee's unwillingness to even view the film out of respect for his ancestors as a prime example). But for those who've long since aligned themselves in the director's corner, those who rank his films not by good and bad but by better and best, Django Unchained is certain to send you from the theater drooling.

I'm firmly planted in this latter group. For me, Tarantino's worst film from a critical standpoint, 2007's Death Proof (one half of the Grindhouse double billing), is one of the more under-appreciated and misunderstood films of the past several years. This is my first opportunity to properly review a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's a movie I've been waiting patiently for from the moment I heard it would eventually exist, and as it lives up to the expectations in just about every aspect, I will likely sound like a full-blown fanboy by the end of this review. I apologize in advance.

Django Unchained is Tarantino's homage to the spaghetti westerns the director is so knowledgeable about, and loves so much. As such, and as has become a common aspect of his catalogue, the film contains numerous pop-culture references to often obscure films that most viewers, including yours truly, will look right past. Even his awkward and seemingly out of place cameo in front of the camera serves that purpose. But the most obvious nod is the name "Django" itself. The original Django from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film, Franco Nero, appears here briefly as a wealthy French mandingo fighting enthusiast (yet another reference).

Our Django, played with quiet confidence and control by Jamie Foxx, is a slave in 1858 who's basically granted his freedom after being "purchased" by dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz - we'll get to him briefly). Schultz, who requires Django to identify a trio of high-priced targets, ultimately agrees to help the man track down his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). This leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a detestable plantation owner ("Candieland") in Mississippi.

I'm not sure I can recall Dicaprio playing a true villain. If Django is his first attempt, he didn't hold back in the slightest. From Candie's initial introduction, in a scene I'll refrain from spoiling, we are assured of just how ruthless and sadistic this man really is, despite the fact that some of his characteristics may at times suggest otherwise. In the later sequence that ultimately ends up being the high point in terms of tension, and the catalyst for the insanity that follows, Dicaprio steals the show. It may be one of Tarantino's finest scenes. This all sounds cryptic, but part of the joy of Django Unchained is watching moments like these unfold for yourselves.

If Foxx's Django is the central character, Waltz' Schultz is 1B, at times even feeling a bit more like the lead. Tarantino has always been a master of dialogue, but something transcendent happens when Tarantino's words are spoken by Waltz. The gritty realism is replaced by something closer to literary prose. Waltz broke onto the American scene with his Oscar winning role as Hans Landa for Tarantino's previous masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. His character here couldn't be any further down the spectrum.

Dr. King Schultz may be Tarantino's first legitimately "good" character, which is saying a lot for someone who kills people for a living. He's as socially progressive as anyone in this time period would have been, his beliefs so strong that at times he struggles to maintain the necessary facade.

Watching Tarantino tackle a genre he is so fond of, and have such obvious fun while doing so can only be described as a pleasure. Part of his appeal has always been the in-your-face attitude he exhibits not just on the page, but stylistically as well. He once again uses a series of quick zooms that literally and figuratively exhibit this attitude, as does his trademark use of inexplicable yet perfect soundtrack choices. Being a spaghetti western, some of his current soundtrack choices are more obvious than others (see the Ennio Morricone score versus the number of rap songs used).

Tarantino has also never been one to pay heed to traditional scene lengths or shy away from lengthy runtimes, and while Django approaches three hours, the film flies by. This revisionist history revenge tale ends with a final third that is so violent and so exciting that it almost feels as if the director is trying to outdo himself. And while some of the falling action at the tail end might appear to drag a touch, it's necessary to close a metaphor presented in the film's first half.

I haven't even mentioned Samuel L. Jackson's witty house slave and right hand man to Dicaprio's Candie. Another gem. Comparisons to Tarantino's other films are inevitable. And while it will take multiple viewings for me to engage in such discussions, what I can say right now is that Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.


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