Thursday, December 13, 2012

Django Unchained ★★½

Entertaining To A Point, But Not Tarantino's Finest Work

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I think I'm in the minority when I say that Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained, is just okay. This theory also applies to my feelings toward his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, which, despite mixed reviews, I thought was perfect.

The story in this film is about the title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (a terrific Christoph Waltz) in order to help Shultz find the Brittle Brothers, whom Django once belonged to. The two become friends and after several successful bounty kills, Shultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). When they eventually locate her, they find out that she is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who does his best work in years), a ruthless slave owner in charge of a southern plantation named Candyland.

Of all the characters in the film, Shultz is the only one who tries to find peaceful ways of resolving problems. Yes, he kills people for money, and yes, he enjoys it, but he only kills people who draw on him first or those who are criminals wanted by the law. When Django wants to kill Candie and all of his men, Shultz persuades him to take action within the limits of the law. When Candie is tormenting one of his doomed slaves, Shultz tries to pay him for that slave's life. He's the glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and bloody movie, the polar opposite of his character in Basterds.

Furthermore, Tarantino takes his time developing the relationship between Shultz and Django, so much so that DiCaprio doesn't even appear on screen until well into the film. The first hour or so involves Shultz helping Django master his shooting ability while the two men battle the cold of the winter and collect rewards for all of their kills. When Django kills his former owners, you know they're deserving of what happens in the same way that Hitler deserved his brutal death in Basterds. As with that film, Tarantino no longer seems interested in commenting on violence in cinema, rather, he relishes in it. It worked once, but perhaps seeing a similar revenge story again is what left me feeling underwhelmed.

While Tarantino's films all manage to concern revenge in some way, Django feels like it's nothing new, despite its attempts at being a western. Inglourious Basterds had an original feel to it: It was Tarantino's World War II, brutally rewriting history while giving us the same sharp dialogue and love of movies that we've come to expect in his work. Django Unchained feels like he's trying to cash in on that same magic, only this time it's applied to slavery.

It's definitely creating an emotional response from the audience, but not exactly ushering in an appreciation of how far we've come as a nation. He's giving us an excuse to enjoy the killing of so many people and wants us to share in the excitement of that. To do that in his last film, a departure in many ways from what he typically does, felt refreshing. Now, however, he seems to want to hit us over the head with this new found appreciation for glorified violence.

In many ways, each of Tarantino's movies are love letters to what has come before: his first few films were all homages to crime thrillers and gangster pictures from a bygone era; his Kill Bill series paid respect to his fascination of the Samurai film; Death Proof was obviously a Grindhouse appreciation; and Inglourious Basterds illustrated his love of making movies. We get none of that in this film.

It may seem as though I hated Django Unchained; I didn't. There is enough that I love about Tarantino in it to keep me mostly entertained. His next work will surely tell us if this is the direction he's headed with his films. If it is, I don't know if I'll ever be on board. You'd think by now he'd be ready to show us something completely unexpected. Apparently, he's not.