Release Date: December 25, 2012
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio
MPAA Rating: R
With 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino engaged in the most enjoyable of revisionist history by telling the story of a band of Jewish soldiers during World War II who traveled around scalping Nazis. Tarantino returns to that well once again with Django Unchained, which tells the story of a freed slave who travels around the south as a bounty hunter.
Inglourious Basterds was incredibly entertaining thanks to the best opening scene of Tarantino’s career, a collection of strong acting performances and a very satisfying, visceral ending. While Django Unchained at times reaches the heights that Basterds did, it unfortunately stumbles a bit in its execution and never quite lives up to its full potential.
The biggest problem with the film is its pacing. Django is 165 minutes long (12 minutes longer than Basterds). The problem is that it feels even longer. While it drags in several spots throughout, it struggles the most at the end. The film builds to an epic shootout, but instead of ending there at what feels like the natural climax, it continues on. From there, it is Return of the King-esque in the number of epilogues and false finishes it offers before finally wrapping up.
Leaving the theater, that was the most common complaint I heard from my fellow moviegoers – that the film just dragged too much in the end and felt overly long. Some tighter editing and a quicker, more straightforward ending would have done the film wonders. Instead, what is overall an enjoyable film tries its audience’s patience and ends on a sour note.
The other major problem with the film is Jamie Foxx’s performance. Fox just seems like the wrong guy for the part. Django is a character who plays his cards close to his chest. Most of what he’s thinking and his motivations in a given scene are below the surface. The part required an actor who could convey more nuance and hint at deeper emotions through his mannerisms and expressions.
Luckily, the rest of the actors’ performances are all incredibly strong. The clear standout is Leonardo DiCaprio, who absolutely owns the role of Calvin Candie, an eccentric plantation owner. Not only did DiCaprio contribute to the film by suggesting Tarantino reference phrenology in it, which gives Candie his most compelling and disturbing scene, but DiCaprio also accidentally cut his hand while filming and instead of stopping to get medical attention, he kept doing the scene and his real blood ended up in the film.
Candie is a complex character who looks down on slaves for their passiveness. As a result, he likes any African American who will give him any sass. That’s why Django gets his attention. It’s also why he keeps around Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), his back talking house slave. Jackson also gives a really terrific performance, making himself hunched over and adding in subtle shaking of his hand to convey Stephen’s age.
Christoph Waltz is great as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who gives Django his freedom in exchange for help identifying a few bounties. Walton Goggins, Jonah Hill, Tom Wopat and Don Johnson all have entertaining cameos.
Tarantino’s greatest strength as a filmmaker has always been his ability to mix genres and ideas in fun and interesting ways. I’ve always thought of him as the Kanye West of filmmakers, someone who can sample a variety of other films and combines them into something totally unexpected and unique. Django Unchained continues that tradition. Outside of the aforementioned pacing problems, it’s a very well shot film.
His best use of mixing genres comes in an anecdote that Dr. King Schultz shares with Django about the origins of the name Broomhilda. Django’s wife Broomhilda is still a slave on a plantation and the two men set out to free her. Dr. King Shultz shares a German fable about a princess named Broomhilda who was hidden away, guarded by a dragon. It becomes a very unique and colorful metaphor for the film itself.
While the film is incredibly violent and graphic, Tarantino also injects a surprising amount of humor into it. There is an incredibly funny, unexpected scene involving KKK members with poorly-cut eye holes in their hoods. It easily got the movie’s biggest laughs.
Overall, while the film has some highly enjoyable moments, it fails to live up to the high bar set by Inglourious Basterds. It’s by no means a bad film, but it fails to live up to its potential due to Jamie Foxx’s lackluster performance and a few major pacing problems. So go see it if you are in the mood for a Tarantino flick, but just make sure to temper your expectations going in.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.