Django Unchained is another quality effort we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino over the last 20 years. It’s not on the same level as his last film, the near-masterpiece Inglorious Basterds, but it’s roughly in the same ballpark, especially as both are period pieces reinterpreting history through Tarantiono’s lens.
It may not be as groundbreaking or unconventional as past productions, or narratively as creative, but more of his version of a straightforward spaghetti, exploitative western. When viewed from that front, Django works best.
Once again the obvious highlight is the acting, which is noteworthy across the board. There is no doubt left Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson were born to act in Tarantino films. Waltz may not have top billing but easily surpasses Jamie Foxx’s Django with a character much more interesting and layered. The film suffers whenever he’s not on screen, especially in its latter half.
Leonardo DiCaprio is also a delicious scene-stealer in a rare villainous turn, clearly relishing the change of scenery, yet the real villain of the piece is Jackson. He delivers a wicked, darkly comedic performance on par with his best work, and he really brings it home in the end.
As the title character, Foxx does an adequate job and is nothing to shrug off. It’s just the writing barely bothers to develop him or give him something substantial to do. Despite this being “his” story, he’s essentially relegated to the sidelines until busting out on a killing rampage for the finale.
The relationship with his wife, which is supposed to be the crucial crux of the story, fails to hit home on an emotional level. We know we’re supposed to care about it because the story says so, but the plot is so stuffed with characters and tangents, it shortchanges a good chunk of the intended dramatic impact.
The other main criticism, besides the editing needing to be tightened up, is Tarantino doesn’t seem to push himself as much as he could or should have. By putting racism and slavery front and center, and by portraying them to such an extreme extent, he had an opportunity to dig deep and really say something.
Instead, he seems content with merely cracking a few jokes and never deviating much from basic blaxploitation, which he’s already shown to be quite capable of handling before. At this point, we more or less know what we’re going to get from Tarantino, and however weird and demented a sandbox it may be, he ultimately plays it too safe this time and never ventures to expand.
As it stands now, Django Unchained will go down as the most financially successful film of Tarantino’s and one of his most acclaimed. While it is well-made, well-acted and overall entertaining, it’s missing those moments of brilliance that have made Tarantino a star and one of the most talked about directors on the planet.
There’s nothing as memorable as cutting off an ear, or the Ezekiel vengeance speech, or the mall switcheroo, or the Crazy 88’s bloodbath, or the tavern standoff. Because in the end, as good as Django may be, it’s hard not to walk away wanting a little bit more.