Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson. (2012, R, 165 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 28, 2012
Quentin Tarantino is back with another wish-fulfillment history adventure. Like his last picture, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained creatively rewrites the past in favor of the victimized. The heroes this time may not accomplish anything as history-altering as bringing down the Third Reich like they did in Basterds, but they do manage to obliterate one of the biggest plantations and perverse slave operations in the South. By pulling back a bit in its scope, Django Unchained achieves a simultaneous recognition of historical fidelity and epic possibility. The events of Django Unchained most definitely never happened, but Tarantino creates a milieu that’s infused with an expectant sense of could have, would have, should have.
Django Unchained has obvious roots in the spaghetti Western – Django being the name of a character who was first played by Franco Nero (who appears in Tarantino’s film in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him cameo) but was later incorporated into the title of several dozen more unrelated movies. Yet, Django Unchained is also a love story, a revenge picture, and an action comedy. Leave it to Tarantino to blend all these generic components into a fluid whole, weaving in and out of the narrative objectives like a virtuoso artist at a loom. The filmmaker’s whip-smart and entertaining dialogue propels the film forward and functions like a gift to his actors who, in film after film, match Tarantino’s words with startlingly good performances. (Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson, in particular, all light up the screen with their renderings.) The love story, in which the former slave Django (Foxx) seeks to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Washington) from the plantation owner to whom she was sold, is vivid and palpable. The revenge drama is violent and bloody, with whippings and near-castration added to Tarantino’s vast arsenal of sanguinary mayhem. Even the action comedy has its moments to shine, as when complementary modern tunes (from Ennio Morricone to Richie Havens, as well as a mash-up between James Brown and Tupac Shakur) accompany the film’s action, which is set in the antebellum South. Another comic moment comes when the newly freed slave Django gets to select his wardrobe for the first time in his life and emerges in a ridiculously ornate Little Lord Fauntleroy costume. However, a delightfully funny scene of a Ku Klux Klan stampede goes too far and brings the film to a sudden stop so we can revel in its comedy.
As entertaining and eye-opening as Django Unchained is, the film also suffers from a certain slackness (like the just-mentioned KKK march) and multiple endings. It’s clear Tarantino couldn’t part with some of his favorite bits, and one has to wonder if the untimely death of his longtime editor Sally Menke might have thrown off the filmmaker’s rhythm. Toward the end of the two-hour-and-45-minute epic, the film seems ready to conclude – yet not before Tarantino stages another of his obligatory, Mexican-standoff flourishes. Tarantino’s audacity also extends to the film’s rampant use of the taboo “N-word," and though its use seems historically accurate and filmically effective in terms of forcing us to feel slavery’s cruel sting, one might pause to wonder whether a writer as talented as Tarantino might have figured a way around such profligacy. Despite these quibbles, Django Unchained offers an embarrassment of riches (and actors in tiny cameos). Saving the film’s opening for Christmas day makes Django Unchained feel like the present we can’t wait to unwrap.