A Quentin Taratino movie is an event. The director, now middle-aged and more than 20 years into his filmmaking career, is thinking about his legacy these days. He’s talked lately about hanging it up after ten films, hoping to get out before he loses touch and starts making "old, limp, flaccid-dick movies." The manic, chatty writer/director believes that one terrible film would cost him three good ones, as far as his rating is concerned.
His latest (eighth, for those counting) film, “Django Unchained,” will do no harm to that rating. It’s funny as hell and full of glorious waves of ultra-violence, yet a little unwieldy. The misgivings I have about the final product never come close to sinking this ship. It probably won’t be the awards horse that “Inglourious Basterds” was, but who cares when you’re having this good a time at the cinema. This is the most flat-out entertaining film of 2012.
While it shares many elements with ‘Basterds’ – the period setting, anachronistic songs, approaching an historical taboo in a big genre adventure, a wide cast of characters and a literally explosive finale – ‘Django’ is more akin to the “Kill Bill” films, especially ‘Vol. 2’. ‘Basterds’ was a masterwork, something Tarantino was wrestling with for more than a decade, as any reader of Peter Biskind’s excellent “Down and Dirty Pictures” knows. After the box office failure and, in some circles, critical pummeling heaped on “Death Proof,” he had something to prove. He was hungry again, and the result was one of his best pictures to date, if not his best.
“Django Unchained” sees Tarantino taking his love of spaghetti westerns and putting it through his post-modern, meat grinder revisionist sensibility. What comes out – he’s calling it "a Southern" – is a blast to behold. For better or worse, this is what a follow up to a huge success looks like from Tarantino. It’s impressive how so many elements from Leone and Corbucci films fit so nicely into this pre-Civil War slavery epic. Though he’s dabbled in the genre before, especially in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” you can feel the excitement and pure nerd joy in every shot of ‘Django’. Some will call it self-indulgent masturbation, others will defend its epic epicness with nary a scruple. Neither is wrong. I for one am ecstatic mainstream American cinema is getting the shot in the arm it so badly needed this year, and right at the finish.
‘Django’ has issues. At times it’s blatantly obvious where significant trims could have been made to the bloated running time. I applaud the unconventional narrative, and all the fun, good stuff we get in it, but did we really need the multiple endings? Especially when there’s not much tension or surprise as to where things are going, unlike the batshit insane climax to ‘Basterds’. This is perhaps due to the loss of editor Sally Menke, one of Tarantino’s most important collaborators, who tragically died in 2010. In her place is Fred Raskin, who worked as assistant editor on both “Kill Bill” films and several Paul Thomas Anderson projects. As strong a force as Tarantino must be on set, it always seemed that Menke, like Thelma Schoonmaker to Martin Scorsese, was his perfect foil, keeping his indulgence mostly at bay.
The biggest surprise is the absence of a strong female character, which has been a strength of all Tarantino films save for “Reservoir Dogs.” Kerry Washington does fine work as Broomhilda, and thankfully her most difficult scenes are done as tastefully as possible while still remaining true to the setting and time, but her role amounts to little else than a damsel in distress. She’s Django’s princess, needing to be saved by her man. Yes, she attempts to escape her fate, but never pulls it off.
The four main leads, and many of the supporting players, do great work though. Christoph Waltz is wonderful, once again having a blast bringing Tarantino’s verbose script to life as the smartest character in the film. What a treat it is to see him play a good guy here. He’s just barely bested by Leonardo DiCaprio, who finds a perfect role in Calvin Candie, the bratty heir to a plantation (awesomely named Candie Land) who owns Broomhilda and thus is the object of Django’s vengeance. If this film wins an Oscar, it will be for DiCaprio’s performance. Samuel L. Jackson is also quite good, and very funny, in his role as Calvin’s long time servant.
As the film’s hero Django, Jamie Foxx is more subtle than one would think is necessary. His arc from uneducated slave in a chain gang to the fastest gun in the south is full of nuances, and he’s a badass in the many gunplay scenes. There are clear parallels to Django’s character and Tarantino’s career in the film industry. The story goes that Monte Hellman and Terry Gilliam were big supporters (they would be Dr. King Schultz in this scenario) of his “Reservoir Dogs” script at the Sundance Institute. And Tarantino took their guidance and learned quickly how to become a great filmmaker, much like Django’s rise.
“Django Unchained” is most successful as a kick ass western adventure tale (it’s actually much less a revenge story than was originally touted) that lays waste to other, statelier slave movies. “Roots” this is not, but we didn't expected that from Tarantino. It’s one of the funniest films in his oeuvre. This writer laughed hysterically as Don Johnson’s gang of fools fumbled around and complained about their Klan hoods, to name but one memorable funny sequence.
Will Tarantino finish after making his tenth film, as he’s been saying? We hope not. Cinema is better off with him making movies, though we could do with him staying far away from acting (why he tried an Australian accent here is beyond us). As it stands right now, in this writer’s opinion, “Death Proof” still remains his worst movie, but none of his flicks are flaccid. He’s still one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today. [B+] - Erik McClanahan