Django Unchained is about as quality as we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino over the last 20 years. It’s not quite on the same level as his last film, the near-masterpiece Inglorious Basterds, but it’s roughly in the same ballpark, especially as they’re both period pieces reinterpreting history in a way. It’s not as groundbreaking or unconventional as past efforts, or narratively as creative, but more of his version of a straightforward spaghetti, exploitative western, and viewed from that front, it works best.
The obvious highlight is the acting, which is pretty noteworthy across the board. There’s no doubt left Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson were born to act in Tarantino films. Walt may not have top billing but his character is more complex and easily surpasses Jamie Foxx’s Django, and the film suffers whenever he’s not on screen, especially during the end. Leonardo DiCaprio is a delicious scene-stealer in a rare villainous turn, but the real villain is Jackson, and he delivers a wicked, darkly comedic performance about as strong of work as he’s ever done.
Now Foxx does an adequate job as the title character and is nothing to shrug off, it’s just the writing barely bothers to develop him or give him something substantial to do. Despite this being “his” story, he’s essentially relegated to the sidelines until he busts out on his killing rampage for the finale. The relationship with his wife, which is supposed to be the crucial crux of the story, fails to hit home on an emotional level. We know we’re supposed to care about it because the story says so, but the plot is so stuffed with characters and tangents, it shortchanges a good chunk of the dramatic impact.
The other main criticism, besides the editing needing to be tightened up, is Tarantino doesn’t seem to push himself as much as he could or should have. By putting racism and slavery front and center, and by portraying them to such an extreme extent, he had an opportunity to dig deep and really say something, but instead he seemed content with merely cracking a few jokes and never deviating much from basic blaxploitation, which he’s already shown to be quite capable of handling. At this point, we more or less know the basics of what we’re going to get from Tarantino, and however weird and demented a sandbox it may be, he ultimately plays it too safe and never expands upon said sandbox.
As it stands now, Django Unchained will go down as the most financially successful film of Tarantino’s and one of his most acclaimed. Without a doubt, it’s a well-made, well-acted and overall entertaining film, but it’s missing those moments of brilliance that have made Tarantino a star and one of the most talked about directors on the planet. There’s nothing as memorable as cutting off an ear, or the Ezekiel vengeance speech, or the mall swichteroo, or the Crazy 88’s bloodbath, or the tavern standoff. Because in the end, as good as Django may be, it’s hard not to walk away wanting a little bit more.