Say what you like about ‘Django Unchained’, there is a lot that works and a lot that does not. Quentin Tarantino writes and directs his homage to the Spaghetti Western. Jamie Foxx plays the title role as an antebellum slave freed by a bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, to help find three wanted men. While a little overblown and overly long, a wide range of people will find at least something to like here. The pace slows down in the third quarter, but overall this is an inventive, entertaining and even exciting film.
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.
The year is 1858 and Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is a slave first seen in shackles being taken to be sold. Their party is met by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist now making a career of bounty hunting. The doctor is a man who despite his pleasant voluble nature should not be trusted. Schultz is looking specifically for Django as the only man who has seen the notorious Brittle brothers and whom the bounty hunter can get to go with him to identify his quarry. In spite of having several hints that Schultz is not a man to be trusted, Django overcomes his suspicion and willingly partners with Schultz. Soon, the two form a bond. Django wants to find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated by a bill of sale, and the bounty hunter agrees to help in the search.
The film has more rounded characters than those of Tarantino’s 2009 ‘Inglourious Basterds’. The dialog does not really do its part to make the characters an attraction. There are comic pieces such as when a racist, proto-Klan mob discovers one of the disadvantages of wearing hoods. But while at times the Tarantino dialog is amusing, too frequently it just pads the story out so that this can be a long film. But a lengthy movie is not necessarily a film of substance. At 165 minutes, ‘Django Unchained’ drags at times, particularly in the third quarter. In that quarter, the two bounty hunters pose as slave buyers. We know it is a pose and entirely too much time is spent on a ruse that we know is not their real intent.
Whether or not Django should be trusting Dr. Schultz, it is clear that Jamie Foxx should not trust Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a natural scene thief with his precise manner and diction and in their scenes together, Foxx seems to almost disappear into the background. Waltz could easily become this generation’s James Mason. Foxx is acceptable as an action hero, but he does not bring much exceptional to the role. Leonardo DiCaprio as the oily Candie plays the real villain of the piece. Samuel L. Jackson plays a slave looking surprisingly elderly.
For too many films, no score is written and instead a soundtrack is assembled of pre-existing popular songs. Tarantino also compiles, but he borrows largely from classic Italian Westerns. His soundtrack is a retrospective of familiar Spaghetti Western themes. The song ‘Django’ under the opening titles and elsewhere is the title song from the 1966 classic ‘Django’. That film starred Franco Nero in the title role and Nero appears in a cameo as Tarantino pays his respects to that film. Even flashback scenes of memory are shot with a grainy saturated film stock evocative of films from the Spaghetti Western genre.
‘Django Unchained’ has been the source of some political controversy. There have been relatively few films that have taken a realistic look at the horrors of slavery. Some films, like Richard Fleischer’s 1975 ‘Mandingo’ have exploited slavery with sensationalism and sexual suggestion. Spike Lee suggests that it is not proper to portray the excesses of American slavery in a film with so much that is comic and so much that is fantastic exaggeration. I guess my feeling is that I did not see any way the slavery was treated that was inauthentic. It was portrayed as sadistic and inhumane and the crimes of this system should be made common knowledge.
While we are on the subject of historical accuracy, it is odd to see a title that says ‘1858-two years before the Civil War.‘ That scene is shown as cold with men wearing heavy jackets so presumably was labeled takes place early in early 1858. That would have made it three years before the war.
While it could have made at better film at a two-hour length, It still rates a respectable +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper