Django Unchained (2012) / Western-Action

MPAA rated: R for strong graphic violence throughout, language and some nudity
Length: 165 min.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Dern, David Steen, Dana Gourrier, Nicole Galicia, James Russo, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, M.C. Gainey
Small role: Franco Nero, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley, Zoe Bell, Robert Carradine
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Review published January 7, 2013

Django Unchained 2012Set starting in Texas in 1858, two years prior to the Civil War in the United States, a German-born bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz, Water for Elephants) helps set free a slave named Django (Foxx, Horrible Bosses), as the man has knowledge of Schultz's current bounty target, a trio of outlaws called the Brittle brothers, as Django had terrible run-ins with them from a prior plantation.  Schultz is against slavery of all kinds, and with a useful partnership with Django, he instructs him on the tools of the bounty hunting trade, as Django desires to be reunited with his long-lost wife, Broomhilda (Washington, Rise of the Silver Surfer), who was separated from him to a different plantation. 

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs) makes his own entry in the Django series, which had been an unofficial collection of at least 50 spaghetti westerns, most having nothing to do with one another and made by entirely different filmmakers and studios, but containing a titular hero named 'Django'.  There is an official Django, though, played by Franco Nero in a well-known film, Sergio Corbicci's Django, and it's to no one's surprise that Tarantino would get the actor to put in a cameo role in his film in a brief conversation with Jamie Foxx's Django character over the spelling of his name. 

It's not a surprise for Tarantino to take on spaghetti westerns, as he has copied the style and music in previous films, most notably the Ennio Morricone music used liberally in Kill Bill, and the entire opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds can be seen as emulating the directorial style of Sergio Leone. 

It's to Tarantino's credit that, outside of the title song and a few other audio ditties sprinkled throughout the film, he doesn't spend much time recreating scenes or cribbing obvious styles from known spaghetti westerns when given ample opportunity.  Rather, it's a pretty solid modern work, with a few allusions to the olden days (the old Columbia Pictures logo and titles are notably throwback), with a few modern songs (hip-hop) and gunfights that feel new and fresh (some might compare the copious amounts of blood that comes from being shot to the works of Sam Peckinpah, though Tarantino takes it to even more of an extreme, as bodies pour out blood like someone blew up a can of Hawaiian Punch.  Hemophobics, and punchophobics, beware!). 

The story is basic, and it's another case of a revenge film from Tarantino, who can rightfully be accused of being stuck in a rut when it comes to ideas on how to generate tension in his films.  Someone does someone a grievous, quite heinous wrong, the antihero has to get violent revenge.  Insert this plot into your favorite subgenre and you have another movie.  But the formula works, and for all of his flaws in the ideas department, he knows what he's doing, as well as the movies he's lifting from, inside and out.  Django Unchained is a pure fantasy film about retribution, as Tarantino doesn't generally care so much about making a film about the ills of slavery any more than he did about the holocaust with Inglourious Basterds.  Rather, he has made a film about an incredible evil, and crafted a heroic tale of coming out ahead in the face of it.  And he likes his ultra-violence, and when it comes to violence inflicted on the worst examples of inhumanity perpetrators, Tarantino has a blank check to make as violent a film as he sees fit, since most audiences see murder of those who would commit mass genocide as 'victimless crimes'. 

The real treat of Django Unchained isn't the writing, though the dialogue still remains Tarantino's main bread and butter.  Rather, it comes though the strength of the performances.  Tarantino's films in the past have suffered from some spotty acting, which made some of his superb dialogue feel artificial at times.  However, it's to his credit that Tarantino, probably due to becoming popular enough to have his way in the casting department most of the time, has learned to craft dialogue with particular actors in mind.  Chistoph Waltz in particular gives another potentially Oscar-caliber performance, this time as a good guy, as he waxes eloquently and philosophically amid the barbaric hordes around him, and does it so naturally, it never feels out of place in this film, despite there never having been a character quite like him in the Western genre. 

Jamie Foxx, who is often underappreciated as an actor, is also quite strong (in a role Tarantino originally wrote with Will Smith in mind) -- his character doesn't start off as a bad-ass, but he becomes one, forced into playing that role as a black slaver, and eventually owns it when he is just plain old Django by the end.  But the performance of the film, in my estimation, is Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island, Body of Lies)  as the main heavy, a truly arrogant but charismatic plantation owner named Calvin Candie, who shifts from ingratiating to downright menacing at the drop of a dime, yet always within the same character.  He is, at once, captivating and despicable, and DiCaprio dominates every scene he is in. 

Side trivia: Tarantino seems to be employing an in-joke, as Dr. Schultz, a dentist prior to taking up the gun (interestingly, 'schultz' is derived for the German occupational name of the village 'payment collector'), takes on sugar-based names that dentists generally would fight against, such as Brittle and Candie, whose Mississippi plantation is called Candyland.  Schultz, when offered a slice of cake by Candie in one key scene, remarks that he doesn't tend to go for the sweets.

Some critics have complained about the nearly three-hour length of Django Unchained claiming that Tarantino would have benefitted from the use of his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, to trim out a good deal of this film's excess.  I disagree with this assessment for two reasons.  First, spaghetti westerns have long been known for their excess, especially when it came to running times, most notably Sergio Leone epics like The Good The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, both films with nearly identical running times as Django Unchained.  Secondly, Tarantino has always engaged in excessively lengthy films even with Menke's sure hand, on nearly all of his works.  Every film from Pulp Fiction to today has been at least 2.5 hours (save for the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, which itself is arguably long for what it delivers), and Kill Bill, at over four hours in length collectively, had to be released in two parts to get it all in.  Besides, many films of significance and popularity these days are released in theaters with 2.5 hour-plus running lengths, so an epic western like Django Unchained is par for the course.

Beautifully shot by longtime Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson (Shine a Light, The Good Shepherd), Django Unchained is arguably the best Western to hit the silver screen since Eastwood's masterwork, Unforgiven, and is, most arguably, Tarantino's best work since Pulp Fiction. 
Qwipster's rating:

©2013 Vince Leo