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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 28, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 52
Undisciplined Django packs a bloody punch
Arts & Entertainment
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Undisciplined Django packs a bloody punch

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DJANGO UNCHAINED Now showing

There is a lot to love about writer/director Quentin Tarantino's latest effort - so much so, I'm not sure I can comment on it all in a single review. At the same time, though, there is almost nearly as much to complain about, the movie a lengthy, self-indulgent slog at times that feels like three films unceremoniously crammed into a single, 165-minute narrative. At times brilliant, at others risible, the movie had me doing emotional cartwheels for the duration of its running time, a fact not lost on me as I left the theater after the screening.

The basics revolve around a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). He has been freed, more or less, by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man who abhors slavery but isn't above using its indecencies to get what he wants. In this case, what he wants is the Brittle Brothers, a trio of reprobates he's determined to get the bounty on. He does not know them but Django does, and so he'll give the man his freedom if he can lead him to them.

A PARTNERSHIP IS BORN
From there the relationship between the two men expands. Schultz takes Django under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the bounty-hunting trade, realizing that his new compatriot (and eventual friend) is a natural. As their relationship grows, so does the former's desire to assist the latter in finding his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the pair setting out to free her no matter what the cost.

This leads them to despicable Louisiana plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He's got Broomhilda, and knowing he won't be keen to get rid of her, Django and Schultz go undercover as partners looking to get into the Mandingo fighting game, in order to get into Candie's good graces. While their façade succeeds at first, house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), his master's despicable right hand, quickly sees through the pair, putting them into a precarious position.

NO SUGARCOATING SLAVERY
There's obviously a lot going on, Tarantino setting the action just two years before the chaos of the Civil War hoping to intimately explore the disgusting smear slavery and its lineage left upon, and continues to haunt, the United States. Some of the violence is the most honestly savage the director has ever chosen to showcase, the weight and meaning behind it leaving an abhorrent aftertaste that stayed with me long after the film had ended.

And that's a good thing. Tarantino has a flair for this sort of stuff - he always has - but in some ways the flippant stylistics integral to his narratives sometimes lessens the impact of much of the bloodshed and carnage. Not here. For once the filmmaker does not shy away, does not try to paint a rosy picture, doesn't allow for facetious sarcastic niceties where it comes to anything having to do with slavery. It's hardcore and unflattering, the reactions of those taking in the sight of the inhuman carnage perhaps more important than the on-screen depiction of it.

The bad thing is Tarantino's insistence on sticking to the spaghetti-Western esthetics of the genre he's throwing this story inside of. The cartoonish (albeit with admittedly brilliant dialogue) opening sequence; a silly aside involving a wannabe lynch mob arguing over their ill-fitting hoods; a latter moment between Django and three dimwitted captors - none of it feels necessary. Moreover, the director's bleakly comedic tone doesn't always fit the proceedings, throwing things off-kilter in a way that left me slightly annoyed.

INCONSISTENT PACING
It did not help that I often felt the director was letting things develop at too haphazard a pace. The story he was telling was nowhere near as epic as what Sergio Leone was going for in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, and as such, a running time nearly equal to those two classics doesn't feel warranted. The lackadaisical nature of the pacing was a constant distraction, and I couldn't help but wonder when Tarantino was going to get on with it and finally get around to scraping to the meat and bone of his narrative.

He does so in Candyland, Calvin's so-called plantation where all sorts of delights can be found for a price. DiCaprio is as slimy and as smarmy a villain as any Tarantino has ever created, the actor twirling his lips around each syllable with a malevolent relish that made me continually shudder. He throws himself into the character completely, never once shying from its odious aspects, and as depictions of pure, unadulterated evil go this is one that will be hanging in the pantheon of greats for quite some time.

JACKSON, WALTZ STANDOUTS
He's nothing, though, in comparison to Jackson's Stephen. As acting triumphs go, this is one of 2012's best, watching him navigate this man's complex waters as eerily unsettling as anything I've seen this year. Who Stephen is, why he has become the man he has, the reasons he is so willing to throw his own kind to the wolves and embrace as a brother the man who owns him - these are his and his alone, Jackson showcasing these internal machinations in a way that held be uncomfortably spellbound.

On the other side of the good-and-evil equation, Waltz is also terrific, giving the movie a pizzazz and a chutzpah I cannot believe it ever would have had without him. His Dr. King Schultz is a revelation, a man with purpose and charm, and while his business is death, his moral code is as unwavering as it is sacrosanct. When he gives Django his friendship, when he promises to help him free his beloved Broomhilda no matter the cost, I believed him instantly, making the carnage to come all the more heart-wrenching.

I could go on forever, discussing both sides of the Django Unchained coin, going into where I think his reverence for spaghetti Westerns pushed him into directions both right and wrong and the places where the movie soars intellectually but just as quickly comes up mentally stunted. The funny thing is, even with all its excess, even considering the times when I think Tarantino goes too far (especially during the latter portions where a hero rises to exact his revenge) I do indeed like this movie.

Why? I'm not entirely sure. The performances are indeed excellent throughout, and the technical facets of the production are beyond reproach. Tarantino's use of music - for the first time the majority of it, both songs and orchestral, original - is miraculous, while Robert Richardson's (Hugo) cinematography is some of the most richly defined in all of 2012. I also appreciated that, for once, there is a larger meaning behind much of the violence depicted, the impact it has upon an audience undeniable.

These facets help make Django Unchained a richly rewarding experience, too be sure, but its shortcomings and indulgences do dilute them to a certain extent. Tarantino has taken chances, and I respect and admire many of the choices he made while bringing this film to life. I can recommend this effort pretty much without reservation, but my feelings that it doesn't quite live up to its potential do remain.

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