Thursday, February 21, 2013

Django Unchained

I made a deal with my wife this year, in regards to what movies we would see in the theater.  You see, we've attended a Best Picture marathon at our local movieplex for the past few years, cramming nine movies into two days, and we've always had a few that we were re-watching.  That's fine when you're at home, in the mood for a particular flick.  It's draining when you're in hour 8 of a marathon.  As such, we made a deal to not see anything in theaters that we thought would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  For my wife, that meant putting off a viewing of Argo.  For myself, it meant postponing the gory joy of Quentin Tarantino's latest film.  It was a mature choice, I suppose, but I was so happy to finally scratch my Django itch this past weekend.

The Django Unchained trailer really covers the basics.  Like so many other Tarantino movies --- Kill Bill, especially --- the premise is fairly simple.  A bounty hunter in pre-American Civil War times, Dr. King Schultz (), enlists a slave, Django () to help him out on a bounty assignment.  As it turns out, Django is a natural when it comes to killing people.  What a happy coincidence!  Working with Schultz allows Django to earn his freedom, but his ultimate goal is to find his wife.  He doesn't know who owns her, but Schultz agrees to help his new friend find his lost love.  Of course, there are some twists and turns down that road, usually involving racist white people and gore, but that sums things up pretty nicely.
Okay, there are bad black guys, too.  It's a complex film.

It's a good thing that I feel silly summarizing the plot in detail, because I have a lot to say about everything else in Django Unchained.  While I have some concerns about Tarantino's writing and direction, the man has a knack for getting great work from his actors.  I honestly think this is my favorite performance by --- of course, if you don't count Ray or Collateral, there's not much competition.  He was understated at times, but was able to rise to whatever level of silliness or violence the script demanded.
Violence and a silly suit --- in the same scene!  Levels!
His character was a little light on depth, though.  That may be because this movie --- which is definitely about Django's journey --- was dominated by .  Do you remember those awkward, slightly philosophical monologues that Uma Thurman sometimes delivered in Kill Bill?  Waltz takes that same sort of material and makes it magical.  I don't know if it is his voice or his natural charm, but Waltz is the best thing to happen to Tarantino's movies since Sam Jackson.  I was also impressed by 's heel turn as the primary villain. 
He doesn't need the hammer here.  With that grin, even flowers would look threatening
I've always liked DiCaprio, but his role selection over the past few years has bored me.  Playing a character with no regard for human life was a nice change of pace, and he was convincingly nasty.  was also (unsurprisingly) good as DiCaprio's right-hand slave.  Jackson swims through his profanity-laced dialogue, but what makes his performance stand out are the moments that he spends one-on-one with other characters.  Look at his face:
That is not the look of a slave.  That is the look of an evil bastard who loves to manipulate, and that is why this was a standout role for Jackson.  Like most Tarantino movies, the cast is substantially large, but those four are the major players.  was fine as Django's wife, but her role was reactionary, so it was hard to like much about her.  Don Johnson had a better part, as one of the many racist white people that needed killing, but it's not like he had to do much in his role.  Walton Goggins made a welcome appearance as a henchman.  Goggins is quickly becoming one of my favorite villains, thanks to his work in Justified, but his caveman-brow and so-laid-back-it's-sinister Southern drawl make him a scene-stealer regardless of his medium.  Here, he played tough very well (as expected) and gave a truly fantastic frightened howl (less expected).  I'm not exactly sure why James Remar had a dual role, since his characters were never revealed to be brothers, but it's nice to see him get back to his bad guy roots, instead of all this bland authority figure crap he's been putting out lately.  The rest of the cast was essentially a series of cameos.  The ones that paid off fairly well were Jonah Hill, M.C. Gainey, and Bruce Dern; none of them did anything special, but they played their familiar parts well enough.  The rest were surprisingly brief.  Amber Tamblyn looked out a window, Franco Nero was there to pass on the legend (he was the original Django), and Ato Essandoh died poorly.
And then there is the hillbilly family, which consisted of Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, Zoe Bell, and Ted "Jesus Christ Superstar" Neeley, among others.  I don't know if they had a line between them.  Of course, Quentin Tarantino had to cast himself in a small role.  While his Australian accent was horrible, his character's fate was hilarious, so I'm counting this as one of his better bit roles.

Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Django Unchained, and it is definitely a Quentin Tarantino movie.  If you don't already like his fast-talking and (occasionally) brutally gory films, Django will not change your mind.  Similarly, if you're already on board with Tarantino, I can't imagine Django disappointing.  In terms of dialogue, there are more than enough actors here that are capable of delivering QT's lines well.  Pairing Waltz and Jackson in the same film --- even though they didn't interact much --- was a lot of fun to watch, because you can tell that their dialogue was written specifically for them.
"What can I say?  I'm his muse."
Tarantino always has a strong vision of what he wants from each scene, and that is true in Django Unchained.  The story was nothing special --- it's a Spaghetti Western with racism --- but the script and the performances made it extremely entertaining.

Since this is a Western and a Quentin Tarantino film, I should probably take a moment to address the level of gore and violence in Django Unchained.   Simply put, it is awesome and abundant. 
...and this is only a small taste of the exploding blood packs in this film
I love the fact that Tarantino is sticking to actual fake blood, instead of adding CGI blood in post-production.  QT is currently the leader in fake blood usage in modern films, and the ridiculous excess of it always makes me smile.  To put it another way: if you don't like gore, this is not the movie for you.
To put it another way, *slowly licks Leo's hand*
The gunfighting is done well, and there are plenty of shootout scenes --- particularly toward the end.  More important than the quantity is the quality.  These scenes are violent, and they occasionally have repercussions (although not really).  I also have to admit that Foxx and Waltz looked pretty damn cool most of the time, which is about 60% of any good Western.
This still alone is better than American Outlaws

There are three problems I have with Django Unchained.  The first is that the movie is too damn long.  Tarantino loves to hear himself talk, so I suppose it is no surprise that he can't seem to cut out much from his films.  That's not a huge problem, but this story could have been twenty or thirty minutes shorter and still been awesome.
He could have cut the scenes where they shopped for drapes, for example
My next issue was how well Tarantino built up a large cast of villains and then dispatched most of them with little more than an afterthought.  The most obvious example of this was the hillbilly family; the cast was noteworthy and Sam Jackson built them up like the damn bogeymen for slaves (which would seem to make them extra-extra-scary), but the payoff never came.  You can make the same argument about almost all of the slavers in this film, but that was the instance that bothered me the most.  The most irritating aspect of this film is convoluted plan to retrieve Django's wife.  The script went to great pains to justify this roundabout attack, but the direct approach ("Hello, can I buy your slave?") seems too reasonable to have been dismissed as something not worth trying.

Are any of those issues critical flaws?  Not for me, although the last one still bothers me, even days after watching it.  Django Unchained does so many things right that its missteps barely matter.  And I haven't even mentioned the amazing soundtrack!  Ennio Morricone.  Western.  'Nuff said.  I went into this with extremely high expectations, and I loved every minute of it.  The violence was ample, the dialogue was funny and clever, and the villains (especially Sam Jackson) had depth.  It's not perfect, but I find the imperfections pleasantly interesting. 

Here's the song from the opening credits, which also happens to have been the song from the original Franco Nero Django:


  1. The length of this film is what bothered me the most (oddly, less the second time around). My problem is not that it was 165 minutes, more than it felt like 165 minutes and had no business being that long. This could have been chopped down and it would have greatly benefited from it. In the end, Tarantino's refusal to get something resembling an editor in his movies and his love of spaghetti westerns (and all of their long shot glory) let this one drag a bit. And I think he is just trying to see how much he can piss off his audience with his cameos at this point.

    In regards to the acting, I have to agree with Jamie Foxx. It was my favorite non-Willie Beaman role of his, but as you pointed out, it was also one of the easier roles in the movie (i.e. lack of depth). I was a bit disappointed with Christopher Waltz, only because it was so damn similar to his Inglourious Basterds role. While it is a great role, I had already seen it and wanted something a little different.

    With all of that said, this was still one amusing romp. It is such a joy that Tarantino has been successful enough that he can do whatever the hell he wants with his movies (even if that involves no editor and terrible cameos) - while securing a big budget and a great cast. And it is also wonderful that he has made his own, delightful genre of films.

  2. Tarantino wins the Best Director Oscar the year he allows someone to edit his shit down. Fact.

    That will never, ever happen. Fact.

    As for Waltz, it's been a while since I've seen Basterds. I recall him being charming, but also chillingly evil. Here, I found him to be very funny and pleasantly awkward. But twist my arm, I'll watch Basterds again and keep your thoughts in mind.