Movie Review: Django Unchained

By December 12, 2012

By this point it’s certainly safe to say that Quentin Tarantino has proven himself as daring, audacious, intelligent, and powerfully enthusiastic filmmaker who quite simply loves movies. All kinds. Crime movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown; martial arts epics like those paid loving homage in Kill Bill; sleazy ’70s psycho-thrillers a lot like Death Proof; WWII ensembles like Inglourious Basterds… and now, the western. That uniquely American film genre that combines old-school machismo with a lot of white-washed revisionism… but it works really well for fiction, and that’s why we like it.

If you like any or all of the films mentioned in the previous paragraph, I cannot think of one logical reason that you wouldn’t enjoy the holy hell out of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which immediately stands as one of the man’s most powerful, personal, brazen, and ballsy movies of his exceedingly colorful career. That we have a handsome new western to enjoy is welcome news indeed. That the movie also stands as film geek nirvana and a powerful punch in the face to racial stereotypes is just the icing on the cake; by now Mr. Tarantino is a master of wrapping basic film tropes in layer after layer of subtext, meta-text, and plain old fantastic dialogue, and the man was clearly having a ball while he and his colleagues were baking up Django Unchained.

Loosely based on the Italian “Django” westerns of the mid-1960s, Django Unchained requires no previous knowledge of the character to enjoy what is essentially a very simply plot: we have a bounty hunter who purchases a slave because the latter knows how to track down three criminals that the former wants to collect on. From this inauspicious beginning starts a strange but very appealing friendship between Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django “Freeman” (Jamie Foxx) as the unlikely duo roam from Texas to Tennessee gunning down scumbags while on the hunt for the big baddies: men with names like Calvin Candie, Big Daddy Bennett, and the Brittle Brothers. And once the bounties are mostly done with, that’s when the fun actually begins: turns out that Django has his own scores to settle, a wife that needs rescuing, and an unexpected gift for filling bad men full of holes.

So while Django Unchained might be a little light in the plot department, the screenplay more than makes up for it in shocking violence, well-earned humor (not all of it dark, either), several juicy conversations that feel like trademark Tarantino mixed with a slightly bitter edge, and a few action-heavy set-pieces that are as well-orchestrated and raucously satisfying as they are coated in gallons of fake blood. (If you thought QT’s “Basterds” was violent, just wait until you see the punishment he has planned for racists, bigots, and slave-traders.

And ultimately that’s where Django Unchained goes from “pretty awesome western throwback” to legitimate “movie with a point or two.” At its best moments, and there are several, Django Unchained feels like a righteous punch in the mouth to every trope, cliche, stereotype, and stock convention you’ve ever seen in a film about plantation slavery. Tarantino doesn’t just employ the force-of-nature presence of Jaime Foxx as a super-cool black hero; he’s the movie character who could single-handedly destroy slavery before his wrath is sated. But he’s also kind of charming and sweet, too. (Side note: Jamie Foxx has never been better than he is here. His numerous scenes with the equally excellent Mr. Waltz are worth the ticket price all by themselves.)

Overstuffed with assets that only a movie-loving movie-maker would bother with (beautiful compositions of shocking images; movie references that feel comfortable and not wedged in like flat punch-lines; a supporting cast that keeps throwing welcome faces on the screen; and a confidence that only seems to come from filmmakers who are allowed to make the movie they want. This is a shocking, violent, and sometimes powerfully ugly action/adventure revenge/romance western epic, but it’s always so much fun to see something familiar turned into something fresh right before your eyes. Quentin isn’t the only director who can do it, but I dare say that none can do it better.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.