Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★★

4.0/5.0 = Amazing

Quentin Tarantino loves himself characters who act. Tim Roth is secretly a cop. Travolta is secretly a junkie. Pam Grier isn't working for the cops nor the crooks. The Basterds... well they aren't really Germans... or Italians... you get the point. If there's one connective tissue within the works of Tarantino, it isn't a single stylistic approach so much as it is an obsession with the charade; the idea that every character has something they're hiding.

It's this constant toying with what characters don't want others to know, and how much information the audience has in advance of the protagonist that has made for so many of Tarantino's most iconic sequences. Whether it's Uma Thurman discovering that her daughter is in fact alive, or a French farmer confessing that he is harboring jews under his floorboards. It is Hitchcock to a T, and perhaps no director of the 21st century has done it quite like him.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is, to no surprise, a steadfast continuation of this obsession. A story of a former slave, and his quest to rescue his damsel in distress from the viselike grip of the Antebellum south. Tarantino crafts a mythological yarn that at both times satisfies our carnal lust for revenge against slavers and plantation owners, using Christoph Waltz (perhaps the best line reader in Tarantino's gaggle), newcomers Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, and veteran muse, Samuel L. Jackson to spar verbally as well as physically.

I distinctly remember disliking DJANGO UNCHAINED's silly fourth act, which admittedly lengthens the film to an uninteresting degree. Everything after DiCaprio's and Waltz's departure feels like Tarantino writing himself out of a corner, but Foxx's added agency during this final showdown is really quite rewarding. Tarantino's ridiculous Australian cameo also sat with me a lot better upon rewatch, if only because it is so absurd that it somehow comes full circle into being his most charming performance in any of his films (probably because he gave himself a killer sendoff in this film, too).

But there are two things that really stand out in DJANGO UNCHAINED: First off, I could easily make the case that this is Tarantino's first (and likely only) musical. This film is cued to musical numbers like no other Tarantino film, and as much as he loves remix culture and needle-drops, DJANGO UNCHAINED feels distinctly fused with its music; so much so that his 2Pac/James Brown remix features dialogue from within the actual movie. Seriously, the soundtrack in this film is unforgettable! I didn't realize this the first time I watched this because it all just washed over me, but the fact that I knew the lyrics to every single song in this film (including the Ennio Morricone's amazing "Ancora Qui") goes to show that there's something timeless about the use of music here. It is all so perfectly stitched to the narrative that it makes up for my criticisms of the film's actual plot, characters, and dialogue. Which brings me to my second point.

You see, my second point is on a more critical note: In my opinion, this is probably Tarantino's most uninteresting dialogue after KILL BILL: Vol. 1, if only because the complexity of every ruse, deception, double-crossing, and verbal brawl is oddly simplistic when compared to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. On a base level, this is probably Tarantino's most entertaining work. It's snappy and gets the ball rolling much faster than his prior efforts. It's satisfying wish fulfillment to be sure, but no single set piece is nearly as clever as the room of mirrors that Tarantino forges in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. After the nth time that we see white characters upset that Foxx is riding a horse, you begin to realize that Tarantino didn't have quite as much to say or do with this plot as one would hope (certainly when compared to his last two genre-capers, both of which feel like they rip their genre to tatters, turning over every rock and exploring every nook and cranny).

This lack of innovation really shows in that extended fourth act, which could have taken Foxx, Waltz, and Kerry Washington to a cozy ranch home for a final showdown with DiCaprio's men a la THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. Then again, that might not have satisfied me either, because frankly I don't care for "Tarantino the shootout director", I care for "Tarantino the dialogue wizard". DJANGO UNCHAINED's first 30 minutes really do highlight some of this, but so many scenes are shortchanged with the untimely introduction of firearms that the film never plays with tension and rhetoric in the way that Tarantino's best films do.

With that said, DJANGO UNCHAINED is maybe one of my favorite Tarantino films on an aesthetic level (partly because I'm a sucker for westerns and Americana); the west really comes to life in a fascinating way here. And if this film should be acknowledged for anything outside of its audiovisual merits, then it's perhaps that it's the first film to more accurately show the horrors of slavery; in particular the contraptions used to keep black people in check. I can't think of a slavery film that paid quite this much attention to the disturbing, medieval machinery on display, and though Tarantino only does this in order to build rage for the white antagonists ultimate comeuppance (this whole film is ethically dubious, but so is MANDINGO and many a blaxploitation film, so I won't go there), I think it's telling that a film like 12 YEARS A SLAVE (which does not show any of these horrific items), would win the best picture Oscar a year later.