There was a moment in Django Unchained when a mysterious figure emerges from the darkness of a cold, empty forest; and as it gets closer we begin to see a smiling Christoph Waltz riding a stagecoach with a giant spring coiled tooth bouncing on the top of it. This moment I realized that I was probably in store for the best movie of the year. This was also the first scene of the film.
Django is yet another complete success for Quentin Tarantino, continuing the success of his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds as less of a pop culture gangster filmmaker, and more of a methodically scripted historical revisionist. History a la Tarantino is a film watcher’s delight. A revenge-filled retelling of areas of historical shame, retold in a daydream-like vision overturning the tyrannical villain and giving the advantage to the underdog. Basterds and Django are basically the film equivalent of laying in your bed at night imagining how different that night at the bar could have been if you punched the jerk that shoved you instead of cowering away and apologizing. There are no apologies or remorse in Tarantino’s new history; there is only sweet, glorious, violent revenge.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call Django a departure for Tarantino, but it does boast some differences from his previous works. For one, this is one of the most linear stories of his filmography. Aside from a couple quick flashbacks to explain a gruesome backstory, the story is told from start to finish without any time jumping. If it weren’t for the violence, N-bombs, and Ennio Morricone music; the straightforward nature of the storytelling may have made this felt less like a Tarantino film than the rest. Frankly, I’m just happy he didn’t use the “Chapter” slate structure for a third time.
This is also one of his least talky films. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very talky film. Normally though, Tarantino can’t resist including characters telling long , detailed stories that start off out of context and eventually evolve as a platform for a crazy theory of his, and ultimately come to a point relating to the story. Bill’s Superman story in Kill Bill, the hawk/rat comparison in Basterds, the foot massage argument in Pulp Fiction, etc. Sure enough, Calvin Candie had a bizarre theory about the human skull; but as a whole, Django felt like it was less dialogue and way more action than Tarantino normally merits. I don’t mind the pacing of his other films, but Django definitely felt like it flew by faster than any of the others because so much is going on. For a nearly three-hour epic, it felt much shorter than that to me.
This might also be the most deliberately funny Tarantino film of his career. There were actually scenes, like the Ku Klux Klan gathering, that were written as pure comedy scenes. And they are hilarious. The comparisons Django is getting to Blazing Saddles are legit. This movie was funnier than most of the actual comedies I’ve seen this year. But it’s a balanced comedy, with the film zig zagging between deathly serious moments and ear-to-ear grinning.
The cast and the acting were good as possible. Even the small roles were meaty. That must have been a great day in the life of Jonah Hill when he got asked to be in a scene in a Tarantino film. The heavy hitters, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, are a great duo of amigos and have a highly fun level of chemistry. What starts out as a curious respect eventually turns into a lasting and genuine friendship. Foxx plays it pretty quiet, but undoubtedly badass. And Waltz performs at almost-as-high level of charisma as he did in Basterds, but with a lighter touch. Also, he’s sporting an awesome beard. The villains, Monsieur Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his head servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and truly despicable hillbillies. They as well have great chemistry, with Stephen repeating the last few words of all of Candie’s lines in a marvelous display of hilarious ass kissing. Just their level of back-and-forth bickering provided a rich backstory of the relationship of the two. It was a pretty brilliant display of character development without even directly noting anything specific about their histories. DiCaprio’s Candie was a mesmerizing character, the kind in which you savor every second he’s on-screen because he’s such a magnetic force of entertainment. In a way, I felt that most of the actors were just playing along with Tarantino’s grand design, but DiCaprio was set loose on his own, doing whatever he wanted with the character. There’s probably a lot of manic nuance in the performance that I don’t think Tarantino necessarily conveyed in the script. DiCaprio has deserved an Academy Award for years, I think now is the time to finally give him one.
Music is always a driving force in Tarantino films, and this one isn’t short of excitement. Plenty of stolen Morricone from spaghetti westerns as expected, and lots of questionably chosen but brilliantly functional modern songs that don’t fit the era of the story yet work perfectly in the moment. It was a pretty great soundtrack. Let’s just say it was such a great soundtrack that they didn’t even have room for a brand new Frank Ocean song that he made just for the film.
I was a little surprised that Harvey Weinstein was considering chopping Django into two films because it was so long. Even with a plethora of deleted scenes that will get added to a potential extended version, I don’t see a natural cut point that would justify a split into two films other than for a money grab. Even for such a long movie, it works best as a single isolated story. The editing had enough restraint to not feel crucially bloated, but still had all the opportunities to include all of QT’s gratuitous little moments that he probably borrowed from a 1963 French noir film that only he has seen.
Django, like most of Tarantino’s films, caters to both sides of the spectrum. It’s a film that critics will shower with praise for its technique, and the common man can also enjoy on a pure entertainment level. To put it more specifically… it’s a film that someone can enjoy for a beautiful cinematic visual of a shadowy, silhouetted kiss; or for someone who enjoys watching a guy explode with two gallons of fake blood after getting shot with a handgun. While I don’t think it’s as masterful a script as Inglourious Basterds, I consider Django Unchained on the same level as an overall masterpiece. I look forward to checking it out again before it’s out of theaters. The assumption of the first scene was correct, this is the best film of the year.
10 out of 10