Monday, January 7, 2013

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx
Django Unchained (2012)
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson

Revenge is a dish best served cold and, when it comes to revenge, no one doles it out quite like Quentin Tarantino.

In recent years, Tarantino has endowed his central characters with ample opportunities to get even in instances where they have been painfully wronged -- whether it's The Bride exacting revenge on the man who tried to kill her or a group of Basterds on the hunt for Nazis.

Tarantino, with his almost unnatural ability to understand the plight of those who were once downtrodden and his evident love for the world of cinema, has crafted his maturest film to date with Django Unchained.

Riding high on the coattails of the much-lauded Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino's latest blood-soaked  tale sets its sights on the years leading up to the American Civil War. When we first meet a chained Django (Jamie Foxx) he's a recently purchased slave who is unexpectedly freed by a personable German bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz makes plain his motivation to a thoroughly stunned Django -- he's on the hunt for Django's previous owners and requires his help in pointing out their faces in a crowd. However, as with all Tarantino films, the opening 40 minutes merely scratches the surface of the plot.

The real draw is in Django's search for his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now under the ownership of the brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- a man so villainous that he forces slaves to battle one another to the death in what he calls "mandingo fighting."

Schultz and Django devise a way to work their way into Calvin's good graces, earning a place at his dinner table under the guise of slave traders wanting to offer him money for some of his "mandingo" fighters.

With a nearly three-hour run-time, Django is on par with Tarantino's previous films with regards to longevity and plot twists. However, those coming into Django expecting the usual clever, dialogue-heavy flair that has become the director's staple will be surprised that such extended scenes of jabber are lacking this time around. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. And that's not to say that Tarantino's dialogue has lost its bite. As amusing and scathing as Tarantino's conversations can be, Django involves far more character development and explosive (not to mention extremely violent) action sequences.
Leonardo DiCaprio
And while Tarantino, as writer-director, is a draw in his own right, his bang-on casting choices are always guaranteed to pack the threatres.

As the titular anti-hero, Foxx has the right intensity -- his anger on slow-burn, brimming just beneath the surface before it erupts in spectacular fashion. It's undeniable that Foxx fits comfortably in Tarantino's universe. While Django is less showy than some of Tarantino's previous creations, Foxx excels in the role with a quiet, subtle and touching performance.

However, it's Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, DiCaprio as the vicious Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's loyal house slave, Stephen, that all vie with each other to steal the show. In a smaller supporting role, Jackson gives arguably his best performance in years. As Calvin, DiCaprio is genuinely terrifying, shattering any remaining comparisons he may still encounter with his earlier roles in Titanic or Romeo + Juliet. He's all fire and brimstone and some of his best exchanges occur alongside the equally wonderful Jackson.

But it's Waltz, once again, who nearly steals the film right out from under his co-stars. As he did with Basterds, Waltz savours Tarantino's dialogue, using his unique cadences to give his director's words even more meaning and intensity. He's so suited for Tarantino's hyper, ultra-violent homages that the two will undoubtedly continue to work together for years down the road. His Schultz is the perfect mentor to Django and, part of why the film excels, is because of their palpable chemistry.

Django is a whole new venture for Tarantino; more mature, violent and controversial than any of his previous films. But there's no denying that this auteur still has the goods and his work packs a punch few other American directors can get away with -- or would even risk trying.

Once again Tarantino goes big and delivers -- his critics be damned.