Tarantino does it again
Quentin Tarantino and his style of filmmaking really don't need an introduction. With a directorial career spanning over two decades and eight films (not including the films he's co-written/produced/introduced/etc.), Tarantino's been somewhat of a whirlwind in Hollywood with his stylistic vision and film-obsessed knowledge. If you've somehow never seen a Tarantino film, let alone heard of him, Django Unchained might actually be a great primer for new viewers. It's no Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, but still a worthy addition to the Tarantino canon.
Then again, aren't they all?
Two years before the Civil War, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is bought by the dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help Schulz track down three wanted criminals whom Django is familiar with. In exchange for the assistance, Schulz offers Django freedom. However, after realizing Django's potential, Schulz takes him under his wing and mentors him. Schulz agrees to help Django find and save his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately, Candy is a ruthless slave master that runs Candyland, a slave plantation that trains male slaves to fight one another to the death.
Quentin Tarantino is known for his stylistic, over-the-top approach to cinema, and Django Unchained is no different. While the film is heavily rooted in antebellum America, there are still a few Tarantino-esque anachronisms, including Rick Ross musical segues and his patented dialogue scenes that obviously feel out of place for the period, but still add an extra layer of humor to said scenes.
In a surprising turn for Tarantino, Django Unchained is a linear film, devoid of the twists/chapter breaks of his past films. However, despite the change in narrative format, Django Unchained still takes genre conventions and spins them around the way Tarantino knows how. The film is a Western through and through, but shares typical Tarantino elements like black comedy, the aforementioned long dialogue token scenes, and over-the-top action sequences.
Because of the linear approach, Django Unchained stays focused on Django's and Schulz' journey. Without the divergences and shifting perspectives found in previous Tarantino films, this leads to stronger lead characters... or so you would hope. That's not to say that characters in previous films weren't already strong characters, but with a cast that stays relatively small, more attention is driven towards the two leads. However, one actor clearly outshines the others. Three guesses, but the first two don't count.
Tarantino has this innate ability to write and tailor his characters perfectly for the actors cast to play them. This leads to an effect where not only is the character inherently more interesting, but Tarantino's pinpointed writing also elevates the actor's abilities to the fullest. The most recent Tarantino "product" is Waltz, and his take in Django Unchained shows that his award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds wasn't a one-off thing. Don't let the marketing fool you: Waltz' Dr. King Schulz is just as much of the lead character as Foxx' Django, perhaps much more so. Schulz is a German ex-dentist-turned-bounty hunter/slave sympathizer, whereas Django is a freed slave out for revenge, as well as the safety of his wife.
The biggest gripe is not so much Foxx' acting, but perhaps Django's writing. Waltz kills every scene he's in with this balance between proper gentleman manners and condescending, passive aggressive badass. Where Waltz' performance relies on subtlety and balance, Foxx' Django is pretty one-dimensional. Look no further than the dialogue/accents every character takes up in the film: every other character, from Waltz to Candie to even Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, speak with period-appropriate language. Django, on the other hand, feels too much like an anachronism. I'm entirely unsure if this was done on purpose by Tarantino, Foxx' acting, or just the way Tarantino wanted to portray slaves in his universe; whatever it may be, Foxx' Django felt lacking.
Old and new Tarantino fans know what to expect of him by now, and Django Unchained won't change any previously held conceptions. It's a thoroughly-entertaining film, although has a tendency to run a bit slow in between the "meatier" segments of the film. There really aren't many better ways to celebrate the holiday season and end of the year than watching Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz kill wanted criminals and slave owners, especially when the film is buoyed by another amazing performance by Waltz and the captivating writing/directing from Tarantino.