REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and some of the dialogue is annoying. For example, Tarantino has a fascination with certain language and we see it here. There are times where certain characters sound like they belong in “Reservoir Dogs” instead of a spaghetti western. Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding rap music. For me it did more to take me out of the setting than enhance the film. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. I was neither turned off by it or impressed with it. It was so ridiculously over the top that it was neither humorous nor did it add any intensity to the action. Any impact it had quickly wore off.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. For me it is another Tarantino project that shows bits of greatness that it never can sustain. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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30 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

    • I know a lot of people will agree with you. For me it featured that same Tarantino indulgence that often weakens his movies. Some great moments but some weak ones too.

  1. Totally agree with you on this one Keith, this was Tarantino’s indulgence at his worst. I think one of the reasons was that it’s the first film he made without his late editor Sally Manke, I think if she’s still alive, she would’ve convinced him cut back on a few things in the film that needed to be cut out. Also, I didn’t think Foxx was right for the role, I don’t mind him as an actor but I just thought he didn’t fit this role. I read the script a year before the movie came out and it’s written for Will Smith and when Smith passed on the role, I thought Tarantino would hire another actor who fits the description in the script.

    I loved the script and was so excited to see the film, but I was letdown. Surprisingly he kept most of what we wrote in the script but somehow the final product just didn’t deliver for me. Still an entertaining film but not on my favorite QT’s films.

    • Thanks Ted. Thinking on your words, I can definitely see how tighter and more focused editing could have helped this film out a great deal. For me it felt like QT was completely off his leash and there was no one to rein him in.

      I remember reading that the role for was Smith but I honestly didn’t mind Foxx. You and I kinda had a different reaction to him. I normally don’t care for him but found him to be ok here. Regardless of that it would be very interesting to see the role played by who it was written for.

      Thanks for the great comments!

  2. Honest review bro! Can’t fault that at all. Personally I really had a blast with it but I am an admirer of QT anyway. That being said, it was flawed. The biggest one for me was QT not knowing when to end the end the film. He dragged it on far too much. Loved the performances though.

    • Thanks my friend. It did feel as though there were a couple of times where it should have ended but it kept going. It could have and should have been a bit shorter.

      You’re right about the performances. Those folks were having a ton of fun and it showed.

  3. I personally am among those who loved the film, but then again, I haven’t seen this film twice. I think if I were to sit through it again the flaws and indulgences would become more obvious. I am a big fan of QT and he can’t really do much wrong in my eyes. Lol. Great review Keith, a very fair one too. You give it lots of thought and reviewing films this far from their release date always proves a challenge for me. 🙂

    • Thanks Tom. I’ve say on this film for a while before finally rewatching it. I just can’t fully shake the movie’s issues. There are some really great moments but they are bookended by some flat and sometimes unneeded sequences. Below Ted mentioned the absence of QT’s longtime editor. I think that missing link shows itself.

      Thanks again for the comments. Always appreciated.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with this Keith. It’s frustrating that Tarantino can make so many good decisions and so many bad ones at the same time, but it keeps him interesting I guess. I wish it had ended slightly earlier and wish he hadn’t cast himself in it, most of all. Still, I enjoyed it overall.

    • Thanks for the comments. It was really a mishmash of really good scenes and pointless and lifeless scenes. And it just keeps going, never knowing when to wrap itself up. In the end I just couldn’t shake those shortcomings.

  5. Nice review. I really loved Django Unchained. True, the movie goes on longer than it should (Tarantino should have ended the picture around the violent shoot-out) but I pretty much enjoyed every second of it, excluding Tarantino’s indulgent cameo. The man’s a great director but he can’t act.

    • I think most people agree with you on this one. For me it’s a perfect picture of why I struggle with many of QT’s pictures. Some undeniable brilliance surrounded by unnecessary and overwrought portions that I felt needed pruning.

  6. A good read Keith. This was just an immensely fun watch for me, the whole cast was outstanding (excluding QT but we all know that his talent for directing does not translate into acting), some of the music I think was used to make the film more stylish I agree but I actually didn’t mind it and a large proportion of the dialogue was absolutely superb.

    • I know most people really went for this and QT has one of the strongest followings for a director. I just had too many issues with it as a whole.

      Thanks for reading. Always appreciate your thoughts.

  7. So freaggin glad that someone sees it my way. It was long due that I write a review about this movie, too, but I prolonged it since I didn’t have too many kinds words about it. To me it was mainly a glorification of violence, but then again, that’s what people love about Tarantino. I think the n-word was used way too much… I mean, we get it, people were cruel and treated and called African Americans in the worst possible ways. It overshadowed the whole theme if you ask me. I was in the only light skinned person in the movie theater, and I felt like the movie created more hatred towards Caucasians than anything. Either way, it wasn’t bad, bad it didn’t deserve the praise. Awesome review, my friend!!

    • Thanks man. I too thought I was the only one that felt this way but it’s good to hear some others who had problems with it. The movie definitely opens itself up to scrutiny. I don’t think it’s nearly as polished and fun others do and I think it does more to undermine any message it may have.

  8. Nice post, Keith. I liked the film for many reasons, but the ending was too long. It should have ended when the house blew up. QT has a reputation for style over substance. He is great for creating unique conversations and characters, but the story line as a whole is disjointed and weak. I agree with you.

    • Thanks for the thoughts Cindy. I too think his quest to create and promote his style often hurts his storytelling. That was really an issue for me here. I don’t deny the really great scenes but those subpar ones hurt the movie IMO.

      • BTW, you asked for me email last week, but I haven’t received anything. I’m curious….Also, you might like my post on Apocalypse Now. Stop by when you get a chance 🙂

  9. Hi Keith! Hope you’re enjoying your time off! I haven’t seen this one but I’m still curious about it even tho I’m not QT’s biggest fan. I honestly don’t know how I’d feel about this one tho, we’ll see.

    • I’ll warn you, knowing your dislike for graphic violence, this one is extremely bloody at times. It’s so over the top that its actually ridiculous but it could still be a big turn off for you.

      Vacation has been fun. About to chow down as I type!

      • Yeah that’s what I dreaded. I mean Inglourious Basterds was fantastic but there were some really brutal parts that I had to avert my eyes. Django sounds much gorier than that one.

        Glad to hear you’re having fun, Keith!

    • Thanks Zoe. I think more people loved it than didn’t. I thought it was fairly messy and it never really sold itself to me. I saw glimmers of greatness but I also found myself rolling my eyes a few times

  10. They often say Tarantino is a brilliant writer which makes his dialogues so engaging. Well I agree, but I’d still say he is nowhere close to the Coens.

    • Oh I agree one hundred percent. I don’t think he’s even on the same planet as the Coen brothers. I don’t want to leave the impression that I think he is talentless, but I just don’t see him in the same praiseworthy light that many do.

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