A bloody, bawdy Western set in the antebellum South, Quentin Tarantino’s latest history rewrite is unbalanced but frequently entertaining. Expectations swelled to astronomical heights following his ingenious twist on World War II via “Inglorious Basterds” in 2009, so naturally, “Django Unchained” had a lot to live up to. After a promising first act, though, it becomes evident that “Django” is the result of a director stuck in his comfort zone: A haven easily masked by the film’s controversial subject matter.
“Django” wastes no time in jumping right into the action, as traveling dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) in a cunning, violent turn of tables on his stupefied captors. The film hits the ground running from there and seems all but unstoppable. We watch in delight as Dr. Schultz takes Django under his wing as a fellow bounty hunter – taking out slave-owners, blowing up Ku Klux Klan members and donning one of the slickest blue suits to ever hit the silver screen. This inspired first hour is chockfull of laughs, stemming primarily from Waltz and a brilliant scene of Klan members arguing about the eyeholes in their masks.
Sadly, once Leonardo DiCaprio arrives as the dastardly slave-owner Calvin Candie, the film takes a turn for the exhausting and trite. Dr. Schultz and Django travel to Calvin’s plantation, Candyland, with the intention of freeing Django’s wife Broomhilda (the enormously underused Kerry Washington). Samuel L. Jackson steals the film’s second act as the stereotypical obedient slave who tirelessly humiliates his fellow slaves. DiCaprio, on the other hand, is dreadfully one-note in a performance that should’ve chewed the scenery for all its worth. Aside from one sweltering monologue, he simply does not command the screen and sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise phenomenal cast.
The film’s third act is just as grisly and outrageous as one would expect from a Tarantino film, but does not possess the same manic gusto of his past finales (the diner scene in “Pulp Fiction” or the movie theater fire of “Inglorious Basterds”). The entire thing just seems too rushed and spelled-out for the audience, as if Tarantino knew that people would come for the bloodshed but failed to write an ending with a little more audacity. Sure, it’s a nod to spaghetti Westerns, but those extra pinches of intelligent dialogue, greater significance and innovative storytelling are disappointingly absent.
Waltz walks away with the entire movie and is the only character that is consistently fascinating with more than a surface-layer of emotional depth. If he had not already won an Oscar for his villainous turn in “Basterds” two years back, he would be a shoe-in for a supporting actor nod come January. Foxx is clearly having a ball as Django – delivering a slew of one-liners that are sure to become instant classics – but doesn’t really get to let loose until the very end and has an underdeveloped relationship with Washington’s character. There were no real stakes for Django and Broomhilda to be reunited, but it was nice to see them together regardless.
A killer soundtrack and suitably gorgeous cinematography round out the film’s highlights, with a particularly memorable shot of a blood-spattered cotton field. Tarantino certainly has a signature style that is visually and audibly appealing, and the easy-to-please and hardcore Tarantino fans will undoubtedly argue that the man can do no wrong. While he is a top-notch filmmaker who has made yet another distinctive flick, “Django Unchained” ultimately suffers from tremendous style with very little substance.