On my second attempt, I finally got to see Django Unchained at the lovely Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin.
I had mixed expectations. In general, Quentin Tarantino has begun to wear on me. He’s big enough that his movies have become self-indulgent to the extreme. Oh, let’s wink a lot about that cameo, let’s drag out that murder or rape or torture scene about 5 minutes past where it needs to be, let’s toss up some labels on the screen with a whip-crack to be cute… Excess in place of storytelling. But Django was getting really high reviews (sitting at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes right now).
And I was pleasantly surprised. Tarantino reins in his excess while still doing a bloody homage to westerns, and even delivers a coherent plot while doing so!
Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave in the antebellum South, who is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to ID some criminals who need to be brought back dead-not-alive. Django decides he likes killing white folks and becomes a bounty hunter, and his new buddy helps him on his quest to find and free his wife, still a slave somewhere in the South. Basically “Ray” and “the Jew Hunter” in a spaghetti western quest to kill that kid from Titanic and Shane from The Shield.
It works! Oh sure, there’s screaming and blood. The brutality of slavery is shown. There’s cameos, including one of Tarantino. You know, I saw his extended cameo in Sukiyaki Western Django, which is one of the worst 5 minutes of film you’ll ever sit through in your life. He must have gotten the need to go totally hamhandedly over the top out in that, luckily, and he treats all of these elements as part of a coherent whole in Django. Worst cameo: Jonah Hill, given too much camera time for no good reason. Well, maybe tied with the inexplicable “Zoe Bell with face always covered looking at a picture before dying unceremoniously.” Best cameo: Sex Machine! (You know, Tom Savini from From Dusk Till Dawn. The guy with the crotch gun? Yeah, him.)
The story unfolds logically and at a realistic pace, without dwelling overlong on individual scenes – at the end of the movie, when we realized it had been nearly three hours, we were surprised because it had kept up a good but sustainable pace throughout.
Jamie Foxx puts in a good performance in a part that could easily have degenerated to “incoherent rage all the time” or “I’m too cool for all this.” The best performance is from Waltz, who we all know as the Jew Hunter from Inglorious Basterds. It’s a somewhat similar character, but he tones down the unctiousness from Basterds a lot here and is engaging without being distracting. Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job with the plantation owner. The only weak performance is from Kerry Washington, Django’s wife Broomhilda. She didn’t have a lot to work with – maybe ten lines not counting screaming, sobbing, and other fun abused-woman noises – but was more a MacGuffin than a character. And I always love it when Walton Goggins gets work, I’m always like “Oh look it’s Shane from The Shield, that makes me happy!” He even gets called a hillbilly.
The action was engaging, with one long shootout/bloodfest that was done in a pleasingly realistic way, and without being belabored into a half hour thing. There’s deaths by derringer, by pistol, by rifle, by dynamite…
The plot is good if not all that nuanced. Some reviewers seem to think that the plot here is a brilliant dissection of white/black race relations or something; that must be their white guilt talking because it’s not more nuanced than Basterd’s “The Jews get to kill Nazis and Hitler woot!” It’s “ex slave gets to kill white slaveholders and an Uncle Tom woot!” Which is fun and viscerally satisfying, but not some complex thoughtful surprising statement or anything.
Most of Tarantino’s homage work seems to be “let’s take the most lurid elements of the source genre and TURN THEM UP TO ELEVEN and beat them to death in scenes twice as long as they need to be” and ends up generating something more parody than emulation. But in Django Unchained, he takes it to 8 instead of 11 and ends up turning in something that is actually honest-to-God like a good quality spaghetti western. Top flight acting and a good plot turn this into a solid and entertaining movie.