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“Django Unchained” (2012) Review

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There is a section in my film library for all Quentin Tarantino films. His past films have all been thrilling, with not a bad one among the bunch. That being said, I have been looking forward to “Django Unchained” for quite some time. The combination of spaghetti western and Tarantino’s style completely captured my attention my first time seeing the trailer. Is this one of the best films of the year, and where does it stand amongst Tarantino’s other work?

I have to start by saying that this might be my least-enjoyed Tarantino film. “Django Unchained” is a mixture of classic Tarantino highs and some very poor lows. Leaving the theater, I was unsure of how I really felt about the film do to this stark contrast in quality. In the end, the good outweighs the bad, but not enough to bring the film to the same level as other Tarantino classics.

I will admit I have always felt the weakest aspect of past Tarantino films has been the plot. His films have great characters that drive the film, but the storyline the characters are involved in is not all that great. “Django Unchained” is no exception. The first sequence of the film wraps up a short storyline regarding one set of bounties. From there on out, we follow a western-style, Civil War era re-imagining of the German “Broomhilda” legend (something that is plainly spelled out for the viewer in one scene). Yet, for the average plot, the characters are greatly detailed and make the almost 3-hour journey worthwhile. Each character is fully three-dimensional, and have their own reasons and mindsets that grow and evolve throughout the film (though I still felt like Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen came right out of the Clayton Bigsby “Chappelle’s Show” skit).

Speaking of characters, two things Tarantino has always done so well are getting the best out of his cast and creating some excellent dialogue. Here is where “Django Unchained” soars. Christoph Waltz captures the same brilliance he did in “Inglorious Bastards”, Jamie Foxx is a great fit as Django, and Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance I have ever seen out of him. Further, the dialogue exchanged between the cast is expertly crafted. In fact, I’d go so far to say that this is the most well-written movie of the year (ahead of “The Sessions”). These two pieces – acting and dialogue – are two major high points of the film and help drown out the lesser aspects of the film.

I'm not a big DiCaprio fan, but Leo gives an incredible performance as Calvin Candie, one I'd say is the best of his career.

I’m not a big DiCaprio fan, but Leo gives an incredible performance as Calvin Candie, one I’d say is the best of his career.

One of these lesser aspects is the pacing. I have no issue with the nearly three-hour runtime, but rather with how the story is spread out over this time span. The first sequence of the film, revolving around Django and Dr. Schultz meeting and first bounties, moves so swiftly that neither character has time to really settle-in and develop (the quality dialogue does not make up for character development). This stands in stark contrast to the “Broomhilda” branch of the story, which feels entirely too drawn out compared to this rushed intro.

Another negative is the thematic tone and feel of the film. There are scenes that play too lightly with themes that should be serious, and others where seriousness takes hold over sequences that could be lighter in tone. The film just doesn’t seem to strike a balance with what it wants to do. One minute you have a theme that is played with humorously and soon after, the film expects you to take the exact same thing seriously. This detracts from the plot as well.

One last piece of the film that needs to be mentioned is the soundtrack. This is a perfect example of the wide spectrum of quality throughout the film. On one hand, we have tracks like the opening Django theme song that are absolutely awesome. On the other, some hip-hop tracks that come out of nowhere and do not fit the tone of the scenes.

I’m still divided on “Django Unchained”. Part of me enjoyed the Tarantino feel throughout the film, including the incredibly over-the-top final action sequences [Side note/warning: Most of the film is over-the-top in the violence and controversy departments, even by Tarantino standards]. But for all the great scenes and dialogue, there are many things that bring the overall film down. It is by no means a poor film, but measured against Tarantino’s prior history, “Django Unchained” falls short.

Final Score: 7.2/10

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