Rated: R (Seriously, don't take your kids)
I fully expected Quentin Tarantino’s latest gory, hyper-violent historical revision to be a rollicking yarn in the tradition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Unforgiven with a familiar Tarantino spin. What he has provided, as is Tarantino’s tradition, is an amalgamation of genres and whip-smart, anachronistic dialogue that comes together to be something familiar and truly unique. But is it good? Therein lies the rub.
Django Unchained is ostensibly the story of a freed slave on a mission to find his wife, taken from him, and punish the people who did him wrong. Aided (and liberated) by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds), Django (Jamie Foxx) is a complex and nuanced character who has a fine narrative arc without betraying his stoic edge. The pair are featured in a series of vignettes teaching Django the craft of killing to take on the evil men who took his wife.
Django Unchained is beautifully shot and appropriately acted, and the story movies along (though it is a bit long) at a fair clip. The substance of the film, however, is inconsistent and at times disturbingly challenging. Tarantino never sticks to one genre, for example: The movie is at times a tense drama, an absurd comedy, and a road picture with wacky situations and dialogue. While this breakup keeps the movie from being monotonous it also frustrates the viewer who is interested purely in plot.
The film’s leads are pitch-perfect: Both Foxx and Waltz bring their A-game and spit out Tarantino’s dialogue with appropriate gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson owns a small supporting role as a servant and Leo DiCaprio is suitably evil as a plantation-owning sociopath.
Where the movie stumbles is in its social commentary. In an effort to call attention to the “n-word” (which shall not be printed here because I don’t care for people protesting outside my office) characters use it aplenty, spitting it with incredible bile. Aplenty is not a suitable description. It’s used well over 100 times (I didn’t count), to the point of obnoxiousness. So too does the violence go so far over-the-top that the audience becomes numb. In an effort to normalize and take power away from racism and violence Tarantino creates a film where offensiveness is the norm but is still incredibly uncomfortable.
Django’s clever moments are overshadowed (or blood-cloaked) by its excesses—a product of the director’s full control of the project. In his push to make Django an epic story, Tarantino instead leaves us with a film that needs a trim and some focus but gives the audience about what they expect. A strange mash-up of Blazing Saddles and Death Wish, Django Unchained isn’t Tarantino’s finest but is still a solid entry for his fans. If you weren’t fazed by the gore of Kill Bill or the language of Inglorious Basterds, you will likely enjoy the latest entry in Tarantino’s oeuvre.
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