A part of me really wants to love Django Unchained, the newest film by director Quentin Tarantino. It is a film that serves as a harsh reminder of the horror that was slavery in America in the 19th century, and absolutely no punches are pulled — the depiction of how slaves were treated is brutal, yet accurate, and the film is as violent as violent gets. It has a clear message, it is overwhelmingly powerful and it contains a few very strong performances. Yet it isn’t entirely successful.
It tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), freed by the bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They soon become partners, and the first third of the film is concerned with the business of bounty hunting. The film then moves to the real meat of the plot, which follows the duo’s attempt at rescuing Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The style of the movie pays a strong homage to spaghetti westerns, especially the work of Sergio Leone. A few scenes in particular are unmistakably tributes to the Italian director’s Dollars Trilogy.
What Tarantino was going for is clear: the film is definitely an eye-opener. It will serve as a very strong reminder to anyone who has forgotten just how terrible and dehumanizing the slave trade was. The feeling of guilt and repulsion is one that you seldom get from movies, and Django Unchained elicits it for most of its running time.
Unfortunately, it gets quite boring, and if people are looking at their watches instead of what’s happening on-screen, the film is not going to be quite as effective. It isn’t nearly as bad as Death Proof, but it’s more average for Tarantino, who previously has made either really great or really bad films. This is definitely one of his good ones, but it feels far too long and the dialogue isn’t sharp enough for it to hold interest for its entirety.
The other problem is that Foxx is too bland as Django to effectively work in the “seeing the world through his eyes” role. He makes effective use of body language, but his facial expression rarely changes. Django is emotionless — whether intentionally due to his years of abuse or unintentionally because Foxx didn’t turn in a good performance —which makes it difficult to strongly identify with the character.
Waltz and DiCaprio are the most enjoyable actors in the film — either could win an Oscar for their performance. Samuel L. Jackson also delivers an outstanding performance, transforming into a 76-year-old “head slave” and looking far older and less capable than he actually is. All three dominate every scene that they are in.
Django Unchained is a film that’s both risky and safe for Tarantino. On one hand, the difficult subject matter is going to provoke responses from a lot of people, but the style and structure are about as simplistic as they come. I completely respect where the film is coming from, but it might be Tarantino’s least interesting film to date . That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but better editing would have led to more consistently sharp dialogue and, overall, a better film.