Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 165 minutes
If someone told you Quentin Tarantino’s new film was marked by air-tight direction, razor-sharp dialogue, explosive violence, wonderful performances, perfectly offbeat music cues — and so on, and so on — there may not be a great sense of surprise. Those who’ve already placed themselves in the director’s bandwagon (one, by now, should know where they stand) have, after two decades, fully come to expect as much from the manic film artist.
Yet even with his seventh picture, Django Unchained, Tarantino has maintained a capability of expanding his purview, this time out making a rather warm transplant of idiosyncrasies to the western genre. Or is it “southern”? The writer-director — for better or for worse, writer-director-actor, in this case — has been keen to label Django a genre entry that inclines toward the Dixie side of the line. This is, on the whole, true, though how it applies to everything which follows grindhouse-esque opening credits is a bit hard to nail down in just a few words. (Save for, “well done.”) Doing so would taint the fun of discovering things for yourself, anyway.
Which is all the more fitting, as so much of Django Unchained happens to feel predicated upon some sense of discovery. Scene after scene unfolds with most (sometimes all) of the traits listed up top, but Tarantino is doing more than entertaining, instead employing what made a pair of recent trope spins, Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof, incredible works in their own right: first recombining and, then, presenting these expected facets in a fresh manner within each scene, keeping an attentive viewer on their toes and (this is most important) creating certain levels of suspense which, through some miraculous process, function on both diegetic and non-diegetic levels. In other words, we end up wanting to see what’s going to happen as much as we want to see just how Tarantino will make this happen; it comes to be one of the more electrifying sensations offered in all of cinema this year.
And, while Reservoir Dogs, for instance, stands as a wonderful crime film worth a place in that respective genre, the levels of growth accrued these past twenty years — particularly compared to where things started from — is nearly impossible not to take note of. If you don’t get anything out of the central narrative, Django Unchained still feels like a masterclass of formal expression, via Tarantino’s stunning balance of close-ups, medium shots, wide shots, zooms, pans, the capturing of light (aided here by returning cinematographer Robert Richardson), and scales of mood established in rhythms of shot length. We’re talking about a generally smaller film than Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill, maybe even one with more modest overall ambitions, but not any less of a thrilling exercise in flourish.
But no matter how long or how greatly you could delve into a look at his technical construction, it’d be a fool’s idea to exempt everyone else from the discussion. While most will enter this simply because of who’s listed as director on the poster, many were left to question a few casting choices — namely, the frustratingly inconsistent Jamie Foxx as Django himself. It turns out Tarantino was just right, though, for the lead convincingly pulls every emotional and physical beat placed upon his back — that, itself, also being a large portion of what Django has to offer — so well that it becomes difficult to picture anyone else (even a few better-known prior candidates) doing what’s on display here.
This is no real surprise for yours truly, who’s always considered Tarantino’s level of foresight to be nigh supernatural — with the exception of placing himself in front of a camera. Putting Christoph Waltz into the role of Dr. King Schultz, something the actor tears into like well-cooked steak, is a no-brainer, nor is locking Samuel L. Jackson as the elderly right hand man to Django’s nemesis. These roles become so fit to their respective tics that even the side players — Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, and M.C. Gainey, to name a few — just kind of slide in.
But then you see Leonardo DiCaprio take this massive left turn, expectations-wise, by portraying a boisterous, francophilic plantation owner — and it just works. As distracting as it may sound, part of the feeling seems to come from the knowledge that you’re watching a very serious actor let loose, breaking from an image everyone’s come to develop. But this is not all cost-free. The character of Calvin Candie is, of course, nothing if not an extremely vile human being — yes, a terrible slave master, what a shocking turn — and moments where the rug gets yanked from under a viewer come as the sobering reminder of what we’ve laughed at in the first place.
Keeping this in mind, it’s been fascinating to chart the way Tarantino’s handled a responsibility with onscreen violence. Thanks to explicit depictions in years past, the man had come to earn a bad boy reputation, with blood levels hitting a pretty decisive peak in Kill Bill. And, yet, there’s been a sea change these past few years; though the violence can still be fun, it’s coming at a greater consequence and with more moral quandaries involved. The scene that instantly comes to mind, for myself, is Django’s first taste of revenge: the whipping enacted on a slave master from his past. Though satisfying when taken by itself, the context under which it’s been placed — that previously-discussed mode of discovery is especially crucial to the film’s overall thesis, so much more is best left unsaid — makes both this and Tarantino’s more recent work something with greater emotional weight. Have fun, but, please, don’t forget the implications while you’re at it.
A caveat that prevents Django Unchained from earning a slightly higher score: if the film is, at any point, ever unable to carry all of its own weight, the middle section would need to be singled out. It’s in some of the moments after DiCaprio’s introduction when it feels, in some way, that Tarantino’s fallen a bit too in love with his own world — where things gets a bit doughy around the edges, structure- and pacing-wise, and where no central character is readily identifiable. (In a few scenes with the three major players all in a room together, too.) They’re all fascinating and well-performed, but someone kind of needs to be standing in the middle as such crucial moments play out; without Django occupying that space for himself, a bit of the dramatic bottom falls out at these points.
To hell with it, though. The second act climaxes with, speaking in terms of off-camera filmmaking and on-camera character stakes, one of the more tense scenes in Tarantino’s entire oeuvre, leading into a third act with closure is so sweet it doesn’t matter if you saw it coming from the start.
That Quentin Tarantino took the chance to expand upon themes and ideas from his recent work, allowing himself to further explore modes of filmic response, makes his new entry worthy of critical thought. As a tight powder keg of cinema, Django Unchained is also something worthy of celebration.
Django Unchained will open everywhere on December 25th.
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