When I think of the great Western films that I love — The Outlaw Josey Wales, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, et al. — and of all the great Quentin Tarantino movies that I’m passionate about — pretty much all of them except Death Proof, and I still like that one — it leaves me utterly slack-jawed that I’m not overly crazy about Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest and long-awaited offering starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington. All fanboy expectations put aside, I’m puzzled at how such an epic Western — or “Southern” as Tarantino himself describes the movie — can have so many moments of awe-inspiring, wide-eyed cinematic greatness and yet somehow come up a little short in the end.
That’s not to say Django Unchained isn’t a good movie. Quite the opposite, especially given the range of terrific performances, absolutely exquisite cinematography, crackling moments of suspense and heart pumping action sequences balanced with side-splitting humor and quiet dramatic tension. The widescreen cinematic goods are delivered in abundance, with Tarantino’s nigh inimitable panache. The plot and characters suffer in comparison; the larger-than-life widescreen bombasticity underscores an underlying story that feels at times, strangely unfocused and adrift.
The Civil War-era tale begins with the freeing of Django (Jamie Foxx) from bondage by German immigrant, dentist, and bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) Dr. King Schultz. Schultz is after a gang known as The Brittle Brothers, one with a huge bounty on their heads, but doesn’t have a clue as to what they look like. Django does, as the brothers were overseers on his former plantation. Schultz and Django team up, realize they make a perfect pair, and become partners under the condition that Schultz help Django find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her enslavement. The couple was forcibly separated after a failed escape attempt, and the parallels between their condition and the Teutonic legend of Siegmund and Brunhilde motivates Schultz enough to help Django in his quest.
The story is simple enough, but an effective one. The first act of the movie is easily the strongest one; the “origin story” of Django and Schultz, delving deep into classic Western cinema tropes which Tarantino uses to thrilling results. By the time the obligatory montage sequence occurs, during which we see the pair mowing down bad guys and crossing the exquisitely-shot wilderness on horseback, all set to the exhilarating tones of Jim Croce (!), these guys already feel like
western southern legends. Add to this Tarantino’s penchant for utilizing wonderful or rarely-seen TV/movie character actors, his masterful hand at delivering humor and suspense, and his offbeat but extremely satisfying soundtrack choices, and so far this movie feels like another gripping Tarantino epic. Yes, that was Tom Wopat (Luke from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’) as Marshall Gill Tatum during the Daughtrey standoff scene, and man was he great. Who’da thunk it?
And then sadly… the movie comes off the rails by the time it remembers to address the “Finding Django’s wife” plot. It shifts into a meatier dramatic mode, which is welcome, but by this time we’ve come to realize that Django, as a lead character, is less compelling than Schultz. By his nature he has to play Schultz’s valet/slave/sidekick in order to ward off any undue suspicion, so Foxx’s performance is undeniably and understandably restrained, but there’s no sense of underlying fire, grit, or danger behind his eyes. We’re not entirely sure what drives him at any given moment, and his transition to a driving, calculating, proactive character by the movie’s last act comes off as unconvincing and capricious. Furthermore, the act that motivates Django’s transformation (I’m tip-toeing around spoilers here) is so out-of-character, selfish, and quizzically idiotic that it not only makes absolutely no sense in the first place, it almost negates everything compelling that the first act of the movie established.
That’s not to say there isn’t enough action, humor, violence, dialog, and satisfaction to redeem Django Unchained. Furthermore, the powerhouse performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie (the plantation über-lord who has possession of Broomhilda) and especially Samuel Jackson as Stephen (a terrifyingly compelling “House Negro” whose Kaiser Soze-esque switch from a Stepin Fetchit caricature to icily cunning confidante/strategist is both hilariously entertaining and brilliantly rendered) keep the second half of the movie afloat as it starts to needlessly drift away from its far more interesting first half. A slam-bang action finale ends the film with style and kinetic satisfaction, but it’s akin to starting your dinner with a perfectly aged and deliciously marbled ribeye grilled to perfection, and having that taken away after joyously eating half of it and replaced with a decent burger. It’s good and tasty and satisfying, but damn, you really wanted that steak.