Movie Review : Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino is fascinating for all the wrong reasons. The transcendent success of PULP FICTION took everybody by surprise in the nineties and should have technically ushered a new golden era for pulp fiction if moviegoers would have understood there was more to it than a title *. But his career truly became interesting and problematic at the release of his subsequent effort JACKIE BROWN, a film you cannot fully appreciate if you don't love and understand the books of Elmore Leonard (which I fortunately do). That curve in the road sent Tarantino in the most bizarre place. He started making movies to please people. He took movie genres that people felt nostalgia about (kung fu movies, western spaghetti, grindhouse, war movies, etc.) and added the best thing he could offer to it, his excellent writing skills. Normally, this is where your career goes down the crapper. But not Tarantino's. He became amazingly good at it and created somewhat his own paradigm within the movie industry. DJANGO UNCHAINED might be his most polished effort since he abandoned the straightforward crime genre.
U.S of A, circa 1858. Two years before the American Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) has been sold to auction and separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) whom he attempted to escape the plantation with. Along the path of despair comes Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a crazy German bounty hunter with unfinished business with Django's old workplace and a powerful distaste for slavery. Together, they find and kill the good doctor's targets and begin both a friendship and a professional association. Django (now Django Freeman) is a natural at hunting white people and Dr. Schultz enjoys his company, so they make a deal to work together for a winter and then go after Broomhilda. Only problem is that Broomhilda has been sold to Candyland, one of the biggest plantations, owned by the wacky Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio) for whom slavery is way more than a job.
Since the release of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in 2009, Tarantino has refined himself a little bit. He started taking more chances behind the camera and while it feels like déjà vu in IB, it's a lot more personal in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Tarantino is not afraid to take slow, large, atmospheric shots. Makes you appreciate how much of a movie's personality is lost to violent editing and "fast pacing". There is nothing fast about DJANGO UNCHAINED and it works in its favor. There is a particular sequence where Django and Dr. Schultz travel with Calvin Candie and have to witness the gruesome execution of a wrestler-slave. By the time you reach the end of the trip, it feels long and grueling, like trips must have been, back then. Both the viewer and the characters are exhausted.
DJANGO UNCHAINED sprawls over almost three hours, but it doesn't feel self-involved. Quentin Tarantino goes into micromanaging mode to make sure this is 1) historically semi-accurate and 2) that it provides some perspective on the era and its problems. It's an attention to detail I appreciate as a moviegoer. It's easy to make a movie about the end of racism and paint everything black and white **. There are satisfying scenes of racial comeuppance, such as the already immortal scene where Jamie Foxx whips M.C Gainey and his brother into a mush, but the portrait drawn by DJANGO UNCHAINED is more complex than that. It's best illustrated by antagonist Calvin Candie, who gleefully tortures and kills black people and thinks of himself as source of scientific knowledge about white people's superiority. That and Candie's relationship to his horrible servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) alone show how convoluted the racial issue was back then. Tarantino deserves his Oscar for best original scenario.
In my experience of Quentin Tarantino's movies, I find at least three or four retarded things to dislike. Childish indulgences that have no meaning whatsoever, except to beg for your love. There was only one in DJANGO UNCHAINED and its a small detail, really. The bullet wounds. Every bullet wound in the movie is gushing in the same, spectacular, overt way. It bugged me. First, it clashes with the understated nature of a western spaghetti. It was a useless distraction and second, I understand DJANGO UNCHAINED is a pastiche of the aforementioned western spaghettis but this kind of gory spectacle is a detail that belongs to pastiches in themselves and not to a genre (except maybe grindhouse), so it feels like Tarantino is mocking his own movie and deliberately turning your attention towards him during firefights: "Hey, look at me. I'm Quentin Tarantino. I make badass movies with nasty gun fights. Love me."
Overall, I enjoyed DJANGO UNCHAINED better than I enjoyed everything Tarantino since KILL BILL 2 ***. It's as mature as I've even seen him as a director and it has the best-defined identity since his crime fiction era. Of course it's not perfect. There are nagging details that remind you who you're dealing with, but that's what makes Tarantino who he is. You don't go see a Tarantino just to go see a movie. You have to accept the shadow of his overbearing, unpredictable self on his work and to some extent, that's what makes him inimitable (unlike, let's say, David Fincher, who every young director loved to rip off). I don't know if I'll ever consider myself a Tarantino "fan" per se (it requires a bit of an irrational commitment), but he sure is a breath fresh air in this era of cramped up sequels, cynical cash grabs and mindless, formatted garbage. DJANGO UNCHAINED ranks in his top 5 best films.
* It may sound judgmental, but it took a few years to my teenage self to figure it out. I was eleven years old when PULP FICTION came out. I was absolutely nuts about it, but I couldn't explain why to save my life. As it is the case for many other young intellectual males with a chip on their shoulder, it took FIGHT CLUB to emancipate me.
** Pun 100% non-intended.
*** Please know that I abhorred KILL BILL 1. For those who haven't seen the movies, they couldn't be any more different.