‘Django Unchained’ is Quentin Tarantino’s sixth film (I count the two ‘Kill Bill’ halves as one film), and while it is still a very good film—worthy of every award that it gets—it is still one of his weaker works.
The movie starts with a group of slaves, chained, being brought through Texas. A strange man, a bounty hunter posing as a dentist, frees them, and takes one of the slaves—named Django (Jamie Foxx)—to help him find three men who abused him. Once that is done, the bounty hunter promises to find Django’s wife and buy him his freedom.
The story is more linear than most of Tarantino’s films, and that is both a welcome thing and a slightly odd one. His other films never felt slow at times; their giant running times tended to fly by, even if the level of pretentiousness was high (much like ‘Inglourious Basterds’). This movie does drag, and while it doesn’t come to a dead stop, there are periods where you’re wondering why they’re doing…nothing…and for so long.
The performances, as can be expected, are top-notch. Jamie Foxx as Django is very good; he’s not above-and-beyond like a Heath Ledger-resounding performance, but he does leave a good, not-too-deep, impression. Christophe Waltz as the German bounty hunter continues to show his versatility, showing a kinder and better side than he had as the Nazi officer in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ or the deranged ringleader in ‘Water for Elephants’. And then there is Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, slave and plantation owner—no amount of words can describe how truly evil, twisted, and remarkable his performance is. He steals the show, even if he appears about halfway through the movie. His articulation is perfect, his tone and voice pitched at the exact angle, and right from the start we fear him…and it only gets deeper and more sinister from there. He deserved an Oscar before, but this performance deserves every accolade in the land (for which it will get none: he lost the Supporting Actor Golden Globe to Waltz, and he wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar).
The only role that grated on my nerves to a slight degree was Samuel L. Jackson as old slave Stevens, who plays something of a ‘Remains of the Day’ Anthony Hopkins: he is an old school slave, shuffling around on a cane and knowing exactly how life is supposed to be, at least in his tired little world. While his performance is probably accurate, it grates on the nerves as he poses as the annoying little parrot to his master Calvin Candie: repeating everything he says and making us want to slap duct tape over his mouth. A plus to this though: by the end, the movie does rightfully make us hate him.
As to the technical side, it is a very proficient film, especially in the photography. Robert Richardson—one of the cinematographers up there with Roger Deakins, Vittario Starraro and Conrad W. Hall as masters—shoots the landscapes with scope and breadth, and doesn’t forget the cheesy factor: constant snap zooms and whip pans abound. And then the editing: Sally Menke, Tarantino's late editor, was known for her extreme precision. The editing here is brilliant, but some strands are left unaccounted for; for example, what's with the woman with the face scarf at the end of the film? Why is she highlighted and then forgotten about?
And as to the controversy to the use of the n-word in the film: it is a period piece. It is highly stylized, yes, but it does take place in a time period where the word was common jargon; sit down and open ‘Hucklberry Finn’ and you will see the same thing. It is still an insensitive word, but this movie isn’t saying you should use it or that it’s cool to use it. This movie is for the viewer that already knows movies are pretend (which some media outlets claim is impossible, since they influence youth so much accordingly); once you know it’s not real and should be taken with a grain of salt (and it’s Quentin Tarantino, so take the whole darn salt shaker), you’re all set for the ride.
Tarantino is known for his dark, gallows humor. Here, the film makes you laugh about things you don't usually laugh about: I found myself cracking up over the KKK. With his musical choices (odd as they seem sometimes) and the smart dialogue, and the sometimes-absurdity of what happens, it is brilliant comedy that, while not worthy of Chaplin, would make him smile a little at the least.
In the end, this film is worth the watch, and it’s worth another view as well. As I said, it will win awards, and it deserves. But this is one of Tarantino’s weaker films, mostly in part to the film dragging and being pretty linear. There is a lot of eye candy, and a lot of fun, in the movie, but there are periods—especially in the middle, and then in the oddly protracted and ‘Return of the King’ style ending(s)—where you’re going to check your watch.
But holy cow is it a fun ride.