A part of me really wants to love Django Unchained. Here is a film that serves more as a reminder of the horror that took place regarding slaves in America in the 19th century than anything else. There is no sanitizing here, like is so popular in popular culture; the slaves are treated brutally and the film is as violent as violent gets. It has a message, it can’t easily be taken lightly, and it contains a few very strong performances.
However, it’s one of the more straightforward and easy films from Quentin Tarantino, at least in terms of its creation, not its subject matter. The plot follows a simple structure with a predictable conclusion, there are no twists or turns, the villains are clearly villains and the heroes are the only good guys, slavery is bad — and it desperately needed more trimming. The biggest problem, however, is that dialogue — which is what most of the film is; this is a Tarantino movie, after all — simply isn’t very sharp or even all that interesting. That’s what leads to the “it’s too long” feeling.
The plot: Jamie Foxx is a former slave named Django, freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz). They soon become partners, but also have to go about rescuing Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a plantation owner named Mr. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The first third of the film is bounty hunting business — concluded with some text telling us that, yes, they had fun and were successful in their job — and then we move to the real meat of the plot, which is attempting to rescue Django’s wife.
This is pretty basic stuff. The film isn’t about its plot, though. It’s more concerned with the treatment of slaves, as witnessed through the eyes of someone formerly in their position, Django. Sure, you get some revenge killing, but Django has to act restrained for the majority of the film in order to allow him a chance to get back his wife. You see some incredibly awful things in this film, and I can almost see how some people are going to assume that they’ve been invented for the film. News flash: The treatment of slaves really was this bad.
On one hand, I get what Tarantino was going for. It’s an eye-opener for sure, and this is the type of film that’s really hard to forget. I’m sure it will serve as a very strong reminder to anyone who had forgotten just how terrible the slave trade was — and how awful the people involved in it were. The feeling of repulsion is one that you don’t too often get from the movies, and you’ll have it for the majority of the time Django plays.
He also wants to pay homage to many Westerns from over the years, in particular those from Sergio Leone, with one shot in particular making anyone recognize what’s going on. If you don’t, you’re not paying enough attention to the world you live in. Even if you haven’t seen Leone’s films, there’s one shot in Django Unchained that’s pretty much unmistakable — it’s been done and parodied so many times since that you’ll likely have come across it in one shape or another. Let’s just say that it involves a shadow and a figure standing in the sun to create that shadow. There are more references than just that, but this is the one that will stand out for pretty much everyone in the world around them.
On the other hand, it’s kind of boring, and if you’re looking at your watch instead of what’s happening on-screen, it’s not going to be quite as effective. Sure, this isn’t as bad a film as Death Proof, but it’s more middling for Tarantino, who previously had either made great or pretty bad films. This one is good, but it feels too long and the dialogue isn’t sharp enough for it to hold interest for its entirety.
The other problem is that Jamie Foxx is too bland as Django to effectively work the “seeing the world through his eyes” conceit. Whenever he sees something he does like, he puts his hand on the pistol on his belt, but his facial expression rarely changes. His character is too emotionless — whether intentionally due to years of abuse or unintentionally because Foxx didn’t turn in a good performance — for us to really get that he doesn’t like what’s happening to the slaves.
Part of that is that Django and Dr. Shultz have to “act” and be “in character” for much of the film, so as to not arouse suspicion as to why a white man and a black man would both be riding on horseback, or conversing like partners and not slave and master, meaning Django has to be someone that doesn’t react a whole lot to slavery. But even when nobody’s paying him any mind, his facial tone doesn’t change.
Waltz and DiCaprio are the most enjoyable actors here. It’s not a lock, but either could easily win an Oscar for their performance here. Waltz, of course, already won with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and DiCaprio has been chasing one for years. Samuel L. Jackson also transforms into a 76-year-old in this film, looking far older and less able than he actually is. All three are capable of stealing scenes, and each one does at least once or twice.
Django Unchained is a film that’s both risky and safe for Quentin Tarantino. On one hand, the subject matter is going to provoke responses from a lot of people, while on the other, the style and structure used to make it are about as easy as they come. I can completely respect where the film is coming from, but it’s probably Tarantino’s least enjoyable film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but feeling like more trimming would have led to more consistently sharp dialogue, and a better film.