Theatrical Review: Django Unchained

For myself, a new Quentin Tarantino movie is always an event. I first saw Reservoir Dogs when it opened here in St. Louis at the Tivoli theatre before that theatre’s massive renovation, and just thought I’d seen one of the greatest films that I’d ever saw. Ever since then, I’ve loved each and every one of his films. Yeah, sure, there’s degrees of “love” for each one, but still I’ve found everyone very entertaining and always worth multiple viewings.

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, I got a huge appreciation for B-movies and grindhouse films and still think those are often more fun to watch than the big-budget, star-driven Hollywood releases. Tarantino has chosen with this sort of subject matter for all his films- he embraces all of the conventions of B-movie and grindhouse films and yet he elevates them as well by virtue of his writing skills and being able to get his casts to embrace the subject matter as much as he does. It’s a hallmark of all of his movies and the same can certainly be said for his latest film, Django Unchained.

Django Unchained starts off in the year 1858 and tells us the story of Django, a slave who’s been sought after by a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz. Schultz has gone after Django for his familiarity with a group of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. In exchange for Django’s help, Schultz has promised him his freedom once they’ve been found and killed. But Django has found that he enjoys working with Schultz and enters into a new plan with him; continuing to work with Schultz until he can raise the money that he needs to buy his wife, Broomhilda, out of slavery from a plantation owner named Calvin Candie.

That’s the basic premise to Django Unchained, but trust me, there’s a whole hell of a lot more to it than that. With this movie, Tarantino has chosen to mash-up the genres of Spaghetti Western with Blaxploitation films as well as tipping his hat to the classic slavery exploitation film (though it wasn’t exactly made to be an exploitation film) Mandingo. He’s crafted a nearly 3-hour epic here that’s driven with very rich characters, terrific dialogue sequences and over-the-top violence that to me makes Django Unchained just as satisfying as Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds.

Now this isn’t entirely perfect, but it’s one bit of imperfection, a scene that involves a hooded lynch mob, doesn’t really last too long and for me didn’t really detract from the movie as a whole. This scene basically goes for a cheap laugh and almost seems like it’s more suitable to something like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles than it does for this heavy revenge film. As I said though, it’s relatively short and at least features a big ending that actually does a lot to quell it.

Tarantino has once again assembled a terrific cast. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz play Django and Schultz respectively and they’ve got terrific chemistry together. Foxx is pitch-perfect for his part and almost always seems right on the cusp of explosion, but he’s constantly tempered thanks to the smooth skills that Waltz puts on display as his partner. As good as these two are, they’re totally outshone by Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the head man amongst the slaves at Candie’s plantation, known as Candie Land. Both are extremely over-the-top in their performance, but I think that’s what’s needed to really sell this to the audience, at least it certainly did the trick for me. Jackson in particular is just electric to watch on-screen. Yeah, some could see his performance bordering on the edge of parody, but once you think that’s the case, Tarantino pulls out something new around the character to tell you that there’s way more to him than just that. Jackson is lapping this up and obviously having a huge ball with the part.

It’s really fun to see who Tarantino casts in some of the background parts- look for folks like Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Lee Horsley, Tom Savini, Zoe Bell, the great Michael Parks, John Jarratt and Tarantino himself in the smaller parts. One of the more rewarding bits of casting features Italian actor Franco Nero as a man gambling against Calvin Candie in Candie’s introduction. What’s rewarding about this is that at one point it’s literally a meeting of the Django’s as Franco Nero is extremely well known for playing a character named Django in a series of Italian Spaghetti Westerns.

If you’re a Tarantino fan, I have no doubt at all that you’ll enjoy Django Unchained. As with all of his films, it really is a big, profane and glorious ride from start to finish and again, it just leaves me in anticipation of Tarantino’s next big project. For those that aren’t as familiar with Tarantino’s movies, you’re in for an extreme sensation, some of which you might find off-putting due to it’s violence and it’s subject matter, but I say give it a chance and allow yourself to wallow in it just as Quentin Tarantino does. Don’t miss it… easily for me right up there with the best that I’ve seen this year.