Review: Django Unchained

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Paying homage in film after film, Quentin Tarantino isn’t quite one for firsts, but Django Unchained may be the first film in history to feature an ample dose of both country music and rap in its soundtrack. From its opening titles, there’s no mistaking another dialogue heavy, ultra violent, visually eccentric picture from Quentin Tarantino. Continuing his newfound fascination with history revisionism, Tarantino turns his gaze to the horrors of American slavery by way of the spaghetti western. Though his indulgences are not entirely absent, by transposing the visual sensibilities of his 60’s idols and blending in his well known love of language (the actual use of words, not necessarily profanity), Django Unchained turns out to be one of Tarantino’s strongest films.

The revenge tale has been a recurring narrative for Tarantino lately, and following Kill Bill and Inglourious BasterdsDjango Unchained completes something of a thematic trilogy for the director. Somewhat legally purchased and subsequently freed, Django (a terrifically understated Jamie Foxx) partners with dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the ever welcome Christoph Waltz) in his quest for rescuing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Along the way, he learns the ways of bounty hunting and quickly becomes a formidable force with Schultz in the South, culminating in his arrival at Candie Land, the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Long riffing on the troubled, brooding protagonist, DiCaprio gets to loosen up for the first time in a decade, and the resulting character is perhaps Tarantino’s most horrific creation to date. Matching him in hilarity inch for inch is Samuel L. Jackson’s faithful servant Stephen, completely in agreement with Candie’s despicable ways.

The singularity of purpose driving Django Unchained is its greatest asset. Where Tarantino’s previous revenge films would occasionally venture off into episodic story elements, his latest continuously builds Django’s quest to its somewhat expected climax. In fact, the sole tangential scene of the film is also one of the most uproarious, involving early Ku Klux Klan members’ frustrations with their bags heads. The film takes a little while to get going, and contains a fairly superfluous and protracted final fifteen minutes, but everything in between is purposeful and propulsive. Tarantino’s love affair with the English language continues to fun effect as well. All of his characters, save for Django, are fairly wordy, and it is precisely this verbose quality that has allowed Tarantino to stand out amongst screenwriters and directors. Otherwise, his films might only be seen as cheap rip offs of the films he worships. Another strong element to Django is how personal it feels. By taking arguably the darkest period in American history thus far, Tarantino invests us from the outset in Django, and even imposes an occasional morality when the situation calls for it. A particular encounter in the middle of the film with the Brittle brothers contains one of Tarantino’s best emotional pay offs. True to form, Tarantino does not blink in the face of violence, and though we have seen slaughters aplenty in his other films, the brutality here carries a disturbing resonance, considering the savagery on display was an unforgettably ugly part of our history.

Ever the technical aficionado, Django Unchained is yet another display of Tarantino at his most bravura intentioned. Starting with his ongoing collaboration with one of the best DP’s in the business, Tarantino makes excellent use of Robert Richardson’s strengths. The plantations are painted with rich and vibrant colors, and of course, Richardson evokes the aesthetics of Tarantino’s favorite spaghetti westerns, snap zooming at moments of wild revelation. Coupled with the photography is the period appropriate production design, especially decadent in Candie Land, dominated by blood reds. Another first for Tarantino in this film is the unfortunate absence of Sally Menke, the editor of all his previous pictures, who passed away in 2010. Much of this film is paced perfectly, but one imagines that under Menke’s supervision, the picture might have needed tightening in a few areas, particularly the final fifteen minutes. As mentioned previously, Tarantino is also most lauded for his soundtrack choices, so Django Unchained is no different. This time, he sews in everything from country to rap and his love of Ennio Morricone all into the fabric of his southern, and remarkably, no music choice feels out of place.

Though a case can be made the case for other films, it is my opinion that Django Unchained may be Quentin Tarantino’s finest work since Pulp Fiction. The director has more or less been playing with the revenge tale for almost a decade, and Django Unchained represents perhaps its best iteration, tying it intimately together with America’s dark history. He can certainly be indulgent, but the momentum of this picture surpasses almost all of its predecessors, whose episodic structures have worked to varying effect. With his technical expertise at a peak, a robust ensemble, and an undying love of genre out in full force, Django Unchained finds Quentin Tarantino at his most relevant and memorable.

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~ by romancinema on December 29, 2012.

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