Freed by the dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) finds himself working across the South with Schultz as his partner. The two collect bodies and bounties, as Django works towards his ultimate goal of being reunited with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he was separated from when they were both slaves together. Upon finding that she’s on the plantation known as Candyland, owned by slave-fighting aficionado Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django and Schultz set out to not only reunite the estranged lovers, but also legally free her. Only nothing is that easy, especially when Django gains the critical eye of Candie’s house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Django Unchained is an epic film with a simple and straightforward story that is as entertaining as they come; for all the hyper-explosive and bloody bullet hits, the film shines in its more quieter moments, where an actor like Christoph Waltz can excel in his charm or Samuel L. Jackson can ooze with ill-intent. Even when you know where the film is going, you can’t help but wonder how Tarantino is going to get you there. And he takes you in quite a few interesting directions.
There are moments where Django Unchained feels like Quentin Tarantino’s take on Blazing Saddles, for example, particularly a sequence involving the KKK that plays far funnier than the rest of the tone of the film. Then again, for a violent film taking place in one of the uglier chapters in American history, there are many moments of humor so it’s not outside the rest of the film’s tone so much as it is amped-up in on particular direction. Not to say that Tarantino takes slavery lightly, I don’t feel that way at all about the film, but I laughed or smiled far more than I thought I would have.
And expectations-wise, the film surprised me a number of different ways. For one, it was relatively straightforward for what I’ve come to expect from a Tarantino epic. Sure, there’s a flashback or two, but it doesn’t jump around in the narrative like some of his other films. We get the story of Django’s time with King Schultz, culminating in Django’s bid to be reunited with his wife, and that’s the tale.
Additionally, there was never that one “moment” that was memorable for how much it disturbed me. Reservoir Dogs had the ear scene, Kill Bill Vol. 2 had the eyeball pluck-and-squish and Pulp Fiction had the adrenalin needle, to name a few. For an epic set in the times of slavery, I was expecting something pretty f****d-up and disturbing to come my way but, for the most part, the violence is hyper-real, but it’s hyper-real out the barrel of a gun.
But I don’t mention my expectations to give criticism along those lines; consider them more notes on how this is a Tarantino film, but unlike what I’ve come to expect from the master filmmaker. My expectations not being met in those ways does not mean I didn’t enjoy the film. Quite the opposite, I found it to be extremely entertaining from start to finish. Tarantino’s flourish was ever-present in the dialogue, the hyper-violence and the overall command of the cinematic language (of which he is as much a fan, or even more of a fan, than I am).
The only thing that bothered me is that I never felt any fear for Django’s safety, or suspense that his plans might fail. By the time he and King roll around to Candyland to find Broomhilda, they’re almost like super heroes. Their aim never fails, their setbacks fleeting and their only real losses come from their own doing or decisions, as opposed to the actions of others. Part of me wondered if and when the other shoe was going to drop, but I never really felt they were that vulnerable (even when it turned out that they were).
On the other hand, I felt that Broomhilda was always vulnerable, and perhaps the suspense comes in wondering if Django will be able to save her from her Candyland Hell, or if he’ll be too late. Also, as far as emotional triggers go, Samuel L. Jackson pokes the f**k out of them. I know folks will want to look at DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie as the villain, but in the end he’s only as evil and devious as the times would suggest or allow; he was a slave owner who thought his slaves less than human. In that time, he’s a bastard but he’s probably more common than not. Jackson’s Stephen, though? He was flat-out rotten for reasons that are hard to fathom, and an a*****e with the best of the worst.
Overall, Django Unchained is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining epic from Quentin Tarantino. For a film that’s just shy of being three hours long, it never felt bloated; every sequence seemed to have its place, and at the right pace. When the film ended, I was ready for more.