By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Remar and Samuel L Jackson
If there is one director over the past twenty years who can be counted amongst the most influential directors in Hollywood, it would have to be Quentin Tarantino. The man’s work, especially in the 90s, has inspired many, and subsequent films in the 2000s helped him gain the respect of his peers as well. However, while I would not necessarily call it a slump, Tarantino’s films as of late have left me more than a little unsatisfied. Because, Tarantino’s strength is making films that resignate for years on end. And I feel that this strength was pretty much ended with his Kill Bill series, Death Proof and 2009’s Inglorious Basterds. While those films were certainly initially satisfying, I felt that Tarantino had become his own worse enemy. Their initial aesthetic is one of many reasons why I have not felt any need to revisit them since they came out. His internal need to pay tribute to films he grew up with, while fun to watch unfold, made the stories he tried to tell feel second in nature, and I feel they suffered as a result. In essence, these instincts made Tarantino’s strength of making modern films with a post modern aesthetic gradually become a weakness. This, my friends, has all ended with Django Unchained. While Tarantino is finally realizing his dream of doing a spaghetti western, it is a western that stands on its own merits. Django Unchained has all the laugh out loud comedy, all the over the top violence, and all the line-balancing outlandishness of Tarantino’s past work. And, to put it mildly, Django Unchained is his most satisfying movie going experience since 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
It is well-known that Tarantino wrote the part of Django (the D is silent) with Will Smith in mind. However, it is a sheer set of coincidences involving a combination of Smith turning down the role and Tarantino not feeling he was right for the part anyway that is the basis of Foxx landing the role. Django, I feel, marks the most endearing role that Foxx has ever portrayed onscreen. And yes, this does include Ray. Foxx jumps into the role head first, and it is a joy to see the evolution of his character from helpless slave to hellbent vigilante. Also, after working with Washington in Ray, his chemistry with her is readily apparent, and by the end of the film, you really root for them to reunite. Waltz, reteaming with Tarantino after his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, also makes an ever endearing presence onscreen. What makes Waltz so good is that his role of Schultz is the exact polar opposite of his role as the nasty Nazi in Tarantino’s previous film. Yet, he looks born to play both. And, while Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t on display as much as past works, Waltz sprouts his lines with ease, and his role of mentor to Django is another plot point that is brilliantly written and even better portrayed onscreen.
However, as good as these performances were, there were two others that are monumental stand outs. In this, his fifth collaboration with Tarantino, Jackson delivers what may be his best performance since Pulp Fiction (See a pattern here?) After 19 years of taking roles that border on the bizarre (Black Snake Moan) and wielding a purple lightsaber in the Star Wars prequels, Jackson proves here that he has not lost a step. When he first shows up you won’t stop laughing. However, by the time he leaves, you want him gone. This, again, is a great combination of Tarantino’s writing and Jackson’s presence coming together for the ultimate medley of talent. When talking about talent, one cannot discount DiCaprio’s contribution to Django Unchained. Tarantino has always been able to get the best out of his actors. However, years of working with people like Scorcese, Nolan and Spielberg have been kind to DiCaprio, as his onscreen presence has grown. And, that is a great thing to have in a movie filmed by Tarantino. With this being the first time in 17 years that DiCaprio has not been first billed, you get the feeling that the less pressure added to his performance. Tarantino arranges to make the intentions of DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie known right away, as we are treated to a rapid zoom in shot on his introduction, followed by a meeting that takes place with two slaves fighting to the death in the background. However, it is in a particular scene involving a skull at a dinner table (don’t ask) where DiCaprio really comes into his own. He displays arduous power as he transitions from a quiet story of where the skull comes from to his anger over the situation being unfolded in front of him. An Oscar nomination is all but a given, and any cynics of DiCaprio should be quieted with the talent he arrays here.
Django Unchained also displays the fact that Tarantino is far from losing his luster from behind the camera. I guess an argument can be made about Tarantino never really losing this skill. No matter how much less in quality of films that I felt both Death Proof and Basterds were, Tarantino has always been good at telling his stories. However, again, the man was so hellbent on showing a new audience what he grew up on that his intent of telling modern stories took a backseat. All of those complaints are non-existent now. Consider the way Tarantino establishes how good of a shooter Django is, and then the drama that comes with the close-ups of him reaching for his gun as a result. I am not saying Django Unchained is perfect, however. I am all for violent over the top films. However, between the fruit punch looking blood that is shed and the outright ridiculous ways people are killed (this isn’t Kill Bill people), the film’s edge kind of suffers. I also feel that Tarantino still struggles with exactly how to end a picture. Within the last twenty minutes, there were at least two instances that could have been combined with another, cutting at least ten minutes off the two hour forty five minute running time. However, there is no arguing with the fact that this is by far the tightest, funniest script Tarantino has written in years. Not since the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou has a KKK scene been so entertaining, and Tarantino’s willingness to put Don Johnson in a role that, once again, makes his acting go up a notch, is a talent that is almost non-existent today. Django Unchained won’t change the world. But, as a fan of the man, I have to say that this is the best film Tarantino has done in 19 years. Go see it and expect to be entertained by a master, not be talked down to for not knowing what he knows about film. Django Unchained is highly recommended, and easily one of the best films of the year.
4.5 out of 5