Movie Review: Django Unchained- An Immensely Entertaining Revisionist Take on the Western That is Violent, Insensitive, and Uniquely Quentin Tarantino

django-unchained-2There has always been a consistency to the auteur writing of Quentin Tarantino that is highlighted by darkly humorous twists on conventional reactions and long scenes of ponderous dialogue. However, his filming style slightly changed with the arrival of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds with his distinct homage to old style spaghetti westerns but just set in World War II. This time around Quentin Tarantino decided to utilize the style with the actual subject by bringing his revisionist interpretation of the West, pre-Civil War America, and giving spaghetti westerns a modern twist with Django Unchained. The character of Django might be unfamiliar to most movie going audiences but there is no question that at the hands of Tarantino this character from a Spaghetti Western Django gets a distinct and undeniably entertaining interpretation. While the running time of a Tarantino movie always showcases great self-indulgence a majority of the film is filled with laughably over the top violence, incredibly well written characters, an adoption of the risky Western cinematic style, and a delight mixture of the humorous and the haunting. Because Django Unchained is all around bolstering entertainment audiences will flock to its charm though forgive its rather unfocused concluding 30 minutes. Quentin Tarantino’s strength is complimenting intense visuals with contemplative dialogue making movie chemistry that is unlike most films around but his weakness is getting too wrapped up in his own twisted mind without a countering check. Django Unchained lives up the Quentin Tarantino label as a well-balanced film of humor, cinematic experimentation, and unique characterization but can’t really be considered his best work when compared to stronger films in his filmography, including Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and even Inglourious Basterds.

Django Unchained has absolutely no real connection the original character from the 1966 Django who was a gunslinger caught between the KKK and Mexican bandits. This Tarantino twist has Django (Jamie Foxx) as a slave sold off to separate him from his wife and comes under the tutelage of a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz acquires Django for the selfish purpose of finding a high bounty of three murderous brothers whom only Django can identify. However, Schultz and Django develop a business relationship in dealing with corpses and eventually Schultz agrees to aid Django in finding his missing wife Brumhilda (Kerry Washington) who is owned now by a devious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Writing this film was no easy task as Tarantino constructs scenes that are humorous but often times around subject matter that is overly sensitive. Keeping the film constrained and focused is obviously Tarantino’s struggle as his prolific writing that is mostly scene specific becomes difficult to weave together. However, Django Unchained does possess a flow through the greater part of its running time that makes the dark humor, the over the top violence, and the testing of sensitivities go down relatively easy. Perhaps some of the dialogue might offend the more sensitive movie going audience members but it should be remembered that Tarantino is out to shock you and push the boundaries of conventional acceptance, which he does in a fantastic politically incorrect display. It’s interesting to note that the script takes a great moral stand on slavery (not implying it shouldn’t) but pretty much accepts bounty hunting as a legitimate and arguably justifiable business when previous Spaghetti Westerns, notably The Great Silence, took a moral stance against it. But Tarantino movies aren’t ever intended for moral argumentation or even highly conceptual themes and instead are intended for pure raucous entertainment. What makes the writing and scenarios all the more fun is Tarantino’s ability to adopt a cinematic style and change it for his own personal purposes.

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During the opening credits of Django Unchained there is a loud proclamation in camera work, music, and image that just scream Spaghetti Western. The hilarious unnecessary zooms, the uncomfortable close ups, and the electric guitar playing the movie theme all set the style and mood appropriate for Django’s western tale (or perhaps more appropriately labeled southern tale). To put it into a Tarantino perspective, Django Unchained is to Spaghetti Westerns as Jackie Brown is to Blaxploitation. There are great stylistic hints to the intended homage but Tarantino always deviates in continuity reverting to his specific and recognizable filming traits that could be seen as an unfocused distraction but it’s been such a consistent Tarantino stamp that it can’t really be criticized. What can be positively noted is that with Django Unchained the weaving in and out between the two styles is practically seamless so most people won’t ever notice when he’s tipping his hat to such classic westerns as Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in the West or when he’s presenting his own unique vision. Django Unchained is both a successful western and also a successful Tarantino film to about the same degree that Inglourious Basterds is a World War II movie and also a Tarantino film. Whether it’s the creative choice of excessive violence or filling up a film with long winded dialogue exchanges nothing in Django Unchained ever feels too overwhelming and is easily digestible, except for a good lingering 20 minutes that could have been cut. What really makes the film a welcomed addition to the Tarantino filmography is the unique characters he consistently creates and the great performances that make them even more palpable.

Every actor must cherish the opportunity to work in Tarantino’s films because his characters are so uniquely designed and profoundly written that it must make the process undeniably fun and creative. Coming off a track record of less desirable projects (Law Abiding Citizen and Valentine’s Day come to mind) Jamie Foxx tackles the leading role of Django with attitude and control unseen by him since perhaps his Academy Award win for Ray (arguably undeserved but that’s for another time). Though with the movies’ use of vulgarities and racial epithets it begs a comparison of Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles turned violent and determined for vengeance. Who steals the show really though is the charming, elegant, and consistently humorous performance from Christoph Waltz. His grasp of his role as Dr. King Schultz shows that working with Quentin Tarantino really does bring the best out of him. Of course Leondardo DiCaprio playing against type as a villainous slave owner is commendable and will probably get him award recognition, though really it’s the dialogue and character writing that gave him the easily interpreted role. Filtered throughout the film are great character actors, such as Walton Goggins and James Remar, all of whom aid in the embodiment of that Western style. Although Tarantino nabbing a cameo from Franco Nero who played the original Django just makes the film nerds like Tarantino himself all giddy with satisfaction. The cast fulfills their duty in complimenting the script’s humor and entertainment value by being equally entertaining and charming in all of their roles bringing to life a new look at the Western.

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The bottom line with Django Unchained is that it’s an all-around success of a film, whether you’re looking at it as a genre fulfilling western or even a Quentin Tarantino cinematic masterpiece. It isn’t on the equal level of previous Tarantino classics, especially comparing it to Pulp Fiction or even Inglourious Basterds, but it’s loudly entertaining and darkly humorous. Even though the stretched running time reveals some slight weakness in Tarantino’s ability to write a fully cohesive script there is simply no getting away from the captivating adoptive Western style and the incredibly detailed dialogue and characters. It’s easy to say that Django Unchained isn’t the best film in Tarantino’s repertoire but it’s definitely a complimentary addition to his impressive and practically flawless filmography (an argument can be made against Death Proof). Leave behind your sensitivities and strap yourself in for a unique revisionist interpretation of a classic American specific genre, the Western, through the lens of Quentin Tarantino because it’s an experience worth the admission.

Grade: B

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