When the holiday season rolls around, many things pop into people’s heads. Children laughing and gasping at just how many, how big, and how much fun their new gifts are, the smell of freshly roasted ham, turkey or other meats, and of course, the copious amounts of booze that flow like a wild river in order for each person to stand the hours spent with equally varied amounts of loved ones. However, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, one dish that is being served this holiday season is revenge, and it’s served in as stylish, if lifeless, a way possible with the auteur’s latest picture, Django Unchained.
More so a love story involving a great deal of revenge on the side, Django is the newest film both written and directed by the beloved Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx as the titular character, we first meet our lead as he is being led by his two new owners, along with a handful of other slaves. However, when they run in to a bounty hunter posing as a traveling dentist (Christoph Waltz), his life is turned upside with the man’s promises of partnership and ultimately the recovery of his lost bride, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
However, while the film’s premise oozes romantic and dramatic intrigue, viewers may be sad to discover that the film has neither of those things, holding in its place an oddly paced, dramatically limp narrative saved by glimmers of brilliance and a handful of year-best performances.
As with most of Tarantino’s films, the director has the film’s strongest voice, but he is for once not its biggest star. Rushing this cut of the film into theaters just in time to qualify for this year’s Academy Awards, the film holds on its shoulders the weight of that rush job, feeling structurally incomplete and aggressively scatter brained pacing-wise.
There are, as mentioned above, breaths of true brilliance. Tarantino’s fingerprints are all over this picture, particularly within its moments of quiet, or the moments in which the film goes truly over the top. From a hilarious, leave-your-audience-forever-in-stitches, sequence involving a ‘klan’ gathering to a brilliant use of language near the end of the film’s second act, Tarantino’s ability to shift from broad to intimate is startling and has always been one of his strongest suites. It’s on full display here. While pacing wise, the film feels all over the map, the style and tone of the film is always on point, be it in the film’s use of comedy, or its use of music, possibly the greatest part of the craft behind this picture.
Performance wise, the film is equally fantastic. Foxx is a fine lead, if one that is overshadowed by his counterpart, Christoph Waltz. He, as Dr. King Schultz, gives yet another fantastic performance here as a character that doesn’t seem all that too far off from his character in Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds. An equally affluent German man, this time, he is on the opposite end of the ethics scale (sort of at least) as a bounty hunter firmly on the side of law here. He adds a lot of heart to the picture, arguably the only real beating heart that the film truly has. Washington is underused as Broomhilda, which is putting it lightly as the actress, as goes the character herself, is given absolutely nothing to do in a truly thankless role. However, everyone is overshadowed by the pair of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson who give some of the best performances of their careers here. DiCaprio steals the picture as the purely evil Calvin Candie, embedding within the character a reptilian charm and devastatingly frightening sense of menace that makes him one of the better villains in all of cinema over the past few years. Toss in Jackson as Django’s polar opposite, Stephen, and you have one of the better supporting turns the actor has given the entire span of his career. It’s really an actor’s showcase, it’s just too bad it was in the service of a less than brilliant picture.
Overall, while Django Unchained is distinctly a disappointment, the film isn’t without its strokes of genius. Tarantino’s hand with tone and mood is on point (something that can’t be said for his hand with pacing), and the performance mined here are superb. Equal parts revenge/romance thriller as well as a comment on capitalism and where the actual human body fits into that equation, Django is solid thriller that has the makings of a masterpiece, but nowhere near the execution. Deserving of more time in the editing bay, the film feels either incomplete. Needing to either reign it in or loosen the proverbial belt, the film is stuck in a middle neither digging into the meat of the narrative enough, nor trimming it down into something more resonant. Thankfully Tarantino and his actors are strong enough to hold this film above water.