Django Unchained (Grade: B+)
While it went largely unnoted, Inglourious Basterds was a major departure for Quentin Tarantino. For the first time in his career, he built a film around a historical framework, eschewing modern pop culture references—in dialogue, if not form—and drawing upon real life atrocities to give colour to his gruesome imaginings. While this proved to be one of Tarantino’s most acclaimed and popular films, his approach was not entirely successful. Forced to confront the unambiguous, predigested evil of the Nazis, he embraced an escapist approach to history, discarding reality in favour of wish fulfillment. In addition, he made many of the villains—particularly Hitler and Goebbels—so cartoonishly evil that they were no longer credibly threatening. Substituting slave owners for Nazis, Tarantino resorts to many of the same strategies in Django Unchained, but with some crucial improvements.
Part of the problem with Inglourious Basterds was the stupidity of the title characters and the limitations of the actors Tarantino assembled to play them. Even Brad Pitt—who gave a winning performance in that film—was restricted by Tarantino’s decision to portray his character as a bumbling halfwit. Given the verbosity and intelligence of so many earlier Tarantino characters, this was a surprising choice. Fortunately, Django Unchained offers a return to the more perceptive, charismatic protagonists Tarantino is known for. While Django himself is a man of few words—thanks in part to the race-based submissiveness demanded by the film’s historical context—he repeatedly demonstrates several layers of cunning beneath his stoic veneer.
However, the film’s most memorable character is Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees Django and educates him in the ways of his trade. Arguably the film’s real lead, Schultz gives Christoph Waltz a platform to steal his second consecutive Tarantino film. A charming strategist who can talk and/or shoot his way out of any predicament, Schultz is a classic Tarantino creation. While he enjoys many of the opportunities that slavery provides, he’s a man of surprising honour, visiting harm upon those who deserve it most. He endures great risk to reunite Django with his wife and reveals a surprising frailty late in the film, giving in to a deeply misguided impulse.
Django Uncahined works best in its expansive first hour, largely because of its emphasis on Schultz and his blossoming relationship with Django. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s insidious Calvin Candie enters the film, it settles into a talky, claustrophobic mode. This kind of mid-film shift is typical of Tarantino, going all the way back to Butch’s rambling conversations with Esmeralda Villa Lobos and Fabienne in Pulp Fiction. Django Unchained’s static phase is intermittently intriguing, but Tarantino slows the film’s progress with redundant, unnecessary passages of dialogue that would have benefited from some judicious trimming. Viewer patience is rewarded with one of the bloodiest shoot-outs in movie history, a sequence that is almost apocalyptic in tone—until Tarantino falls victim to his own propensity for frivolous, macho posturing, undermining the carefully constructed sense of urgency that opened this sequence.
While Django Unchained occasionally suffers from an unfinished quality and its tonal shifts could have been handled more adeptly, Tarantino has assembled an impressive arsenal of tricks over the years and they are used to good effect here. His secret weapon continues to be cinematographer Robert Richardson (veteran of many films by Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese), who gives the film a visual dynamism that lifts it above Tarantino’s schlocky impulses. Django Unchained doesn’t break any new ground or revive the boldly inventive spirit of Tarantino’s early films, but it once again asserts his place as one of the most giddily cinematic directors working today.