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Review: Django Unchained (2012)

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Django Unchained
2012 165 minutes rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Quentin Tarantino arguably made Django Unchained (teaser/trailer) because he wanted to try his hand at a Spaghetti Western, and that's basically what he has done.  Alas, the film is little more than a genre exercise, with little more than the obvious role reversals to justify its artistic existence.  That is is mostly entertaining and well-acted across the board goes without saying, but after the slyly subversive Inglorious Basterds, I frankly expect more from the filmmaker.  For a filmmaker known for narrative surprises and challenging the expectations of his audience, his newest entry is oddly conventional and almost timid in terms of how it approaches its subject matter.  Oh, it surely qualifies as another film focusing on revisionist revenge-fantasy history, as well as how we often use the cinematic lens to comprehend the least savory parts of our history, but as a stand-alone film it is lacking in substance.  It is a good movie, for sure, but it is quite frankly not a very good film.

The plot, basically involving a rescued slave (Jamie Foxx) and his would-be savior (Christoph Waltz) teaming up to find Django's wife (Kerry Washington) in the years prior to the Civil War, is somewhat generic, with only a few even token surprises in store.  For much of the narrative, the film plays like a borderline remake of Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro.  The film's violence is surprisingly restrained for much of the picture (a rather horrifying scene of violence is mostly offscreen), until it isn't; at which point it feels like a proverbial blood bath purely because Tarantino felt the need to give his fans the required level of QT-carnage.  And like most of Tarantino's films, it's a bit longer than it needs to be, which in this case proves more damaging than usual due to the fact that the film basically ends with forty minutes left to go. While the first 120 minutes aren't exactly lightning-paced, the film feels economical and fine-tuned in the editing room, right up until the film's natural ending.  Without going into details, there is nothing that occurs in the final half-hour or so that couldn't have been accomplished at the two-hour mark.

The film's genuinely needless and relatively dull final reels would have been forgivable if the film had more to say beyond surface-level content.  Yes slavery was horrible and yes there is a certain visceral amusement in seeing a freed slave taking bloody revenge on slave masters but the film never moves beyond that relatively simple concept.  It should be noted that the film dwells more on the simple inhumanity of slavery than on the sadistic violence often visited upon those in forced bondage.  But the scheme to free Django's wife is not exactly one fraught with peril and the film struggles to justify its second-act subterfuge  It's as if Tarantino thought merely making a western starring a slave taking place knee-deep in the world of slavery was enough, so he basically quit right at the concept and let his actors do the rest.  Fortunately said actors are uniformly wonderful, even if the title character and his damsel-in-distress wife are pretty thin characters (Kerry Washington may be a lead on television, but here she is almost mute as she is threatened and menaced throughout).  Christoph Waltz doesn't do anything he can't do in his sleep, but he is still endlessly entertaining as a bounty hunter who finds his moral compass challenged in unexpected ways by his abolitionist ways.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the proverbial heavy, and he is obviously having the time of his life overacting as much as is allowed.  It's a gloriously fun performance, and DiCaprio plays his plantation owner more as a disappointed parent of his various slaves than as a tyrannical slave owner (he does get his moments of cartoon villainy, including one classic QT monologue late in the game).  The most surprising turn in the film belongs to Samuel L. Jackson, as the head slave at DiCaprio's plantation.  Playing a pretty literal variation on the Uncle Tom archetype  Jackson delivers some of his best work in ages, and Tarantino's best narrative gambit is to play around with the standard master/slave dynamic between Jackson and DiCaprio.  It's a wonderfully bold and engaging performance, and I'd argue that Jackson and DiCaprio will likely be battling it out at the Oscars this year, if there is any justice that is.  Still, while there likely wasn't much on the page to work with, the stout, mostly silent Django doesn't make the most engaging lead character.  Foxx gets very little dialogue and his best moments come when he's actually playing the role of proverbial black slaver as part of Waltz's scheme, and the film briefly touches on the idea of morality in an immoral system.

If Django Unchained is a disappointment, it is still very much entertaining and well-acted throughout.  It is difficult to discuss certain criticisms without going into spoilers, but I will simply say that the film feels more rooted in genre homage that telling its own story.  As was the case with the relatively shallow Kill Bill, there are times when Tarantino seems to be playing out his own stereotype rather than transcending his image.  Quite frankly, I may be holding the film to a higher standard because I know Tarantino can do better and it feels like he wasn't willing/able to find a reason to tell this story outside of the desire to play in the western sandbox.  It's surely a better film than Death Proof and is about on par with Kill Bill, for what that's worth.  Inglorious Basterds, warts and all, felt like a perfect cocktail of Tarantino the filmmaker and Tarantino the stereotype.  Django Unchained hews closer to the latter.