Film Review: Django Unchained

Brilliant comic turns from Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson help string together this audience-pleasing, highly uneven Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western/slave vengeance mash-up.

With his bloodily entertaining but tonally sloppy Django Unchained, the always fastidious Quentin Tarantino may finally be loosening up. This development could help broaden his appeal in the short run, his newest film being the kind of straightforward blend of humor and self-aware ultra-violence that plays pretty well to many different audiences these days. (In other words, expect few of the tricky narrative gambits that have defined his work in the past; this one’s more about doing maximum damage with six-shooters.) Unfortunately, a less formally inhibited Tarantino may turn out to be a less entertaining filmmaker.

The 1858-set story starts out in Texas, where Django (Jamie Foxx) is being transported with a chained-together line of other brutalized slaves to their new owner. A chirpy German by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), claiming to be a dentist, meets their column and offers to buy Django from the two guards. They refuse, and Schultz drops his lantern and whips out a pistol with the genial alacrity of a circus performer doing a trick. After leaving a wounded guard to the attentions of the other slaves, Schultz makes his pitch: He’s actually a bounty hunter, and needs Django to identify three outlaws who once worked the same plantation with him. In exchange, Django gets his freedom.

Tarantino works fast in these early sections, delivering several loose riffs on typical western showdowns and balancing them out with a couple of comic scenes that land in a pleasing middle somewhere between Blazing Saddles and (particularly in a “Who’s on first?”-type routine with a masked lynch mob hunting Django and Schultz) O Brother, Where Art Thou? A high point of bafflingly hilarious absurdity comes when Don Johnson appears as a plantation owner given to Colonel Sanders suits and prolix verbosity. The humor plays well throughout (Django even gets a catch-phrase: “The ‘D’ is silent”) but at the disadvantage of dulling the edge of the script’s visceral portrayal of the savagery of slavery—a problem that gets more pronounced by the film’s gory climax.

Django first plays stoic, haunted straight man to Schultz’s giddy adventurer; it’s a gleefully good mix. But as the film builds towards a mission to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), enslaved on the Dante-esque plantation of Calvin Candide (Leonardo DiCaprio, a Nero-esque fop of a villain, all fluttering hands, sadistic demands and childish fancy), Tarantino loses the thread. If not for the backbreaking work done here by Waltz—whose impish joy and curious sense of righteousness give the film a soul it otherwise lacks—and Samuel L. Jackson in a scorching turn as Candide’s villainous house slave, the whole concoction would have spun apart long before the end. As his only out-and-out exploitation film since Grindhouse, Tarantino here bangs together a couple of moribund 1970s genres (slave picture and spaghetti western) that should actually work pretty well together; the evils perpetrated in the first genre should be well answered by the Biblical wrath favored by the second. But instead of the passionate recreation of genre tropes that made his Kill Bill duology so impressive, and the precise perfectionism of Inglourious Basterds, the rambling Django Unchained doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

Like the spaghetti westerns it emulates down to the camera’s crash zooms and the theme song from the 1966 original Django, this is a film rife with visual and thematic overkill, from the blood spurting by the gallon from every bullet wound to the drawn-out savagery-for-its-own-sake slave gladiator fight and the messy and overly drawn-out climax at Candide’s “Candyland” plantation. It all works well enough, but in a somewhat queasy fashion. With the exception of the current Lincoln, it’s been depressingly long since American filmmakers bothered to seriously look at the nation’s original sin of slavery, so to that end (and for yet again imaginatively plundering out-of-favor pulp genres) Tarantino deserves applause. If only his film could have dealt with it in a more straightforward and gutsy fashion, without hiding it behind a scrim of western gunplay.