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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Django Unchained

We've come to expect a certain type of film from Quentin Tarantino, since the release of the Kill Bill two-parter, Tarantino has lived within genre work. The aforementioned Kill Bill was a tribute to Enter the Dragon style martial arts films, Death Proof floated somewhere between a 70's car-sploitation film and a slasher, and Inglorious Basterds was a direct-riff on The Dirty Dozen and other World War II films. The films have all featured unique close-ups, and signature style camera work capturing some of the same magical aura that permeated his Palme D'or winning Pulp Fiction. Each film also includes the use of specific contemporary musical backing that serves the plot in some fashion, even if it is simply to build the aura of "Tarantino-ness" that surrounds his films. While there have been many imitators of his style through the past couple of decades, even recently (see: Killing Them Softly), you know a Tarantino film when you see it. Django Unchained follows this tradition to the letter and does it within the realm of the western taking place in the pre-Confederate south.

When the film opens, we found ourselves in 1850's Texas, following a train of shackled slaves. After a bloody encounter, one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A period of orientation commences and Django joins Schultz in his duties earning money tracking down wanted fugitives "dead or alive", pretty much uniformly dead. During the course of their travels, Django relays the tale of his sale and separation from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and his goal of being reunited with her. Schultz and Django develop a scheme to be invited to the plantation home in which she is a slave run by "mandingo-fight" loving Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his head-house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). To say the results throughout are bloody would be an understatement.

As is usual with his directoral efforts, the star of the show is Quentin Tarantino. Every shot of this film is lovingly underlined with his typical flair. While I certainly thought, and still think, that Inglorious Basterds is his finest work, Django Unchained is maybe only one notch behind it in his pantheon, proving that Tarantino will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the awards circuit. Django Unchained is a beautiful love-letter to the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, with the endless tundras of arid land, orange shot filtering, and the kind of dry-sparse soundtrack that Morricone would be proud of (including a track of his own that appears a third of the way through the picture). Django is a film where the director is the biggest star and everyone else plays a supporting role. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, particularly when his style is so uniquely his own but its worth noting nonetheless. Tarantino, to his credit, is an avowed cinemaphile and digging into the depths of some of his films you can see the power cinema (and the performing arts) hold over his characters. Inglorious Basterds may have held the most apparent examples, where the wonderfully played Lt. Archie Hickox, a British film critic, goes undercover behind German lines or where an entire theater full of nazis are murdered by (amongst other things) burning film reels. This continues in a slighter, but nonetheless apparent, fashion in the way that Schultz teaches Django how to act, first as his valet and then as his mandingo fighting expert. One can see the outline of Schultz as a Tarantino stand-in, directing his actor toward the type of archetypical hero that has been a huge influence on his entire career. Schultz, the nebbish dentist who became a deadly assassin, Tarantino the meek video-store clerk and comic book fan who became one of America's premiere directors. There's ever the slightest sense of auto-biography there, which enrichens the work even further.

For all the praise of Tarantino that will be heaped his way though, that isn't to say there aren't any acting stand-outs apparent. Foxx, the second choice for the role after Will Smith, doesn't do himself any disservice and plays the role with a nice quiet dignity, but it isn't particularly memorable either, he's a bit more of a means to an end (one can't help but wonder what Smith would have brought to the role). Christoph Waltz is the real highlight of the film. Waltz, who won an Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, plays someone Schultz as someone equally as deadly but this time wearing a white hat. Clearly Tarantino brings out the best in Waltz, and everytime he isn't on screen, the film begins to suffer ever so slightly as he is just that good. DiCaprio finally gets the chance to play a villain, and as Candie he absolutely nails it, playing a character so outside of his type that it may very well be the best performance of his career (give or take your feelings on Revolutionary Road). Jackson also finally plays something that goes outside of his typical role for the first time in years, and he is tremendous, and possibly the film's biggest villain that you don't see coming. With such a weak Supporting Actor field, all three men should be under awards consideration, though Waltz is probably the most likely. Supporting performances throughout are strong, if non-descript, though Don Johnson's appearance as "Big Daddy" elicited a solid laugh from me.

The film itself is long at 2 hours and 46 minutes, but until it hits its final 20 minutes, I never felt its length at all. In places, Django Unchained comes across as possibly Tarantino's briskest effort, as no scene really feels out of place or in need of trimming when you're watching it until those last few scenes. The only nadir of the film is after the huge climactic shoot-out, the film continues on leading to an unnecessary cameo from the director himself, with the worst Australian accent I've ever heard to boot, along with another set of explosions and gunfire. Certainly, it all serves the grand arc that the script is aiming for, but once you hit critical mass of violence a little after the second hour, the additional action at the film's climax feels almost deadening. If there's ever a moment where Tarantino's long-time editor Sally Menke absence is felt, it may be there. Then again, I thought Death Proof was a bit long in the tooth as well, so perhaps not.

Django Unchained is another triumph from one of Hollywood's most interesting talents behind the camera, with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has hit his apex within the genre work he has made his main focus for the past decade and created arguably two masterpieces. At this point though, any further forays into this territory will produce diminishing returns. I'm hopeful that Tarantino's next project will be something none of us expect, rather than more of the same, which you can feel slowly start to creep its way into the credit crawl, but for this time around, it's still wonderful to behold.

I give it 3.5 out of 4 stars (or an A if you prefer).

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