2012 has been a year of surprises for me. I’m known to be pretty anti-Nolan, and yet I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. Likewise, and I know this sounds like heresy, it has been a long time – probably since Pulp Fiction - since I walked out of a Tarantino film content with what I had just seen. Nevertheless, just as with The Dark Knight Rises, I was very pleasantly taken aback as I sat in the theater watching Django Unchained.
Compounding on my bias coming into the movie, I don’t often find myself enamored of Westerns. With the notable exception 3:10 to Yuma, Deadwood, Firefly, and Serenity, there’s just something about the genre that turns me off. So when I heard Tarantino’s next film was a send-up of Westerns, I was fairly nonplussed.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken; not only does this film have a little something for everybody, no matter how attuned the audience is to older Western films, but it also makes a concerted effort to be a reasonably accurate depiction of the time period. Without being gratuitous, Django Unchained offers a wholesome look at the Deep South just before the start of the Civil War; from bad teeth to heinous violence, Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing every unglamorous angle of America in the 19th century.
Indeed, Django Unchained is an unbridled triumph for Tarantino. Unlike his missteps of the past, Django strikes an odd balance between all of the elements that made him so popular in the early 90s. And it’s easy to screw up; I love his clever dialogue, but I am always wary that it will overstay its welcome in the form of long, ham-handed diatribes, and while I think his use of violence is often warranted, I am often concerned that he’ll overdo it or put too much stock in the audience’s lust for blood spatter. Thankfully, Django manages to successfully tie these discrete ingredients together into one, cohesive whole that is very difficult not to like.
As is expected of a Tarantino film, Django Unchained has no want of talent; Leonardo DiCaprio is phenomenal as ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie, Samuel L. Jackson is despicable as Candie’s furiously angry old slave Stephen, Christoph Waltz is charming as dentist-come-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, and Jamie Foxx kills it as Django himself. Every character is deeply fleshed out, complete with clear motivations and logical backstories perfectly communicated by their respective actors. Everyone has their moment to shine, and everyone is a bona fide joy to watch.
If there is any complaint to level with Django Unchained, it is its narrative structure and tone. The film constantly jumps between light comedy and the abject horrors of the old South, sometimes making it difficult to appreciate the humor Tarantino is trying to get across. Similarly, while the film never drags, it is paced oddly; the final act of the film in particular oscillates between several nail biting moments, each of which could have been the climax of the film. Ultimately, I don’t feel that these issues are enough to really hurt the movie – but they are just noticeable enough to distract from the feature itself.
Still, it is clear that Tarantino has finally returned to form with Django Unchained. For where Inglorious Basterds was too unfocused, Django is a concentrated epic; where Kill Bill was too simplistic, Django is just simple enough. And where I was getting to the point where I wouldn’t put down money at the theater for another Tarantino movie, Django has fully renewed my faith in the prolific director. This gorgeous, well-acted story of love and revenge is one of the best films of 2012.
Verdict: Movie Win