Late Review: DJANGO UNCHAINED
It seems like every review of Django Unchained must begin with the writers’ opinion of Quentin Tarantino rather than the movie itself. There is talk of his maturation as a filmmaker, and whether or not he has matured. I’m going to begin by stating that I haven’t really enjoyed Tarantino in quite a while. The Kill Bill duo and Inglourious Basterds were part of a phase of his career where he fell in-love with violence, over-indulgence and with himself, and more specifically with his writing. There are endless scenes in Inglourious Basterds of shot-reverse-shot dialogues that chew up valuable screen time where Tarantino could be showing us something, but it seems he’d rather have us listen to his dialogue instead. Good dialogue, no doubt, but for me film is a visual medium and I’m on the record as being a disciple of the “show, don’t tell” principle. Tarantino likes to build tension through dialogue, like the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, instead of through action, like almost every scene in Argo. Of course there’s no right or wrong way, only preference.
That being said, Tarantino comes back to life in Django Unchained. The first hour of the film is some of the most entertaining cinema I’ve ever seen in a Tarantino film. The pacing is brisk, the dialogue is witty and funny, and the performances are outstanding. It’s a great set-up for the second-act. Fans of the spaghetti Westerns of the 60’s and 70’s will enjoy many of the conventions present in the beginning of the film (music, vengeance, bounty hunters). The kinship of a freed slave and a German bounty hunter really is handled beautifully, something that would have been tough with lesser directors and actors, and it’s that partnership that drives the majority of the story. Christoph Waltz is basically the star of the first act and his performance carries the film screaming into the second act. You could say the three acts of this film are all controlled and paced by different characters. Waltz’s German bounty hunter is a humorous, quick-tongued man who always has the upper-hand, and the first act directly resembles that.
Unfortunately, the second act applies a heavy dose of brakes and nearly brings the film to a grinding halt. The second act is primarily driven by the tense business relationship our two heroes must form with a seriously menacing plantation owner
played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who just so happens to be another part of this film that historically does not work for me. I’ve never really bought into Leo’s roles, most recently as a tough guy (The Departed). But here I thought he turned in a tremendous performance playing the villain. He’s cold, cruelly business-minded, sickly humorous, and prone to engaging in idle chatter, and the second act follows his lead. The business dealings here take the form of a first introduction, where we’re treated to a lengthy scene of slave fighting and early negotiations, which is then followed by a 5-hour horse ride to the villainous plantation house known as “Candieland”. This ride takes up plenty of screen time and slows down the pacing a bit too much for my taste, but still establishes the relationships (or lack-there-of) that will come to a boil in the 3rd act.
Act 3 begins much like the end of the act 2, establishing relationships, this time with DiCaprio’s Uncle Tom butler played
marvelously by Samuel L Jackson, and engaging in idle banter. Jackson’s performance must be noted for it’s necessity to the story as well as the dual threat he presents. At one moment he’s the funniest character and almost insensitively comedic, and the next moment he’s cunningly sneaky and menacing. This act is driven by the opposite persona’s portrayed in Jamie Foxx’s character and Jackson’s character. Much of the active force for the remainder of the film begins during the business dinner scene in Candieland, a scene that seems to go on forever. I realize a dining room is a finite space and there’s only so many ways to show the room without crossing the 180 degree line, but the length of the scene coupled with the constantly familiar staging made the scene drag for me. The dialogue is really fantastic, a great mixture of humor and tension, and sometime’s both at once. But ultimately it starts to feel a bit long with the amount of dialogue and aforementioned stagnancy of the visuals.
I knows it seems like I’m disliking much of the film, but I’d like to point out that these are only minor gripes. A visual problem here, a few trimmed lines there. That’s all. The rest of the film after the dinner sequence is pure Spaghetti western and I enjoyed every damn second of it. The audience I saw it with cheered multiple times, and deservedly so. If there’s any one auteuristic element in Tarantino it is that the villains will get theirs. Tarantino loves to punish people who do bad things and have subjected our heroes to a multitude of pains and anguishes, and I loved watching it.
I could write another post just on the amazing music and, most impressively, Taratino’s use of light in the flick, but I don’t have the screen caps to illustrate my point. So I’ll leave you all with a wonderfully re-used song from the flick that I can’t stop listening to.