Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 24, 2013)
After Pulp Fiction became a breakout hit in 1994, Quentin Tarantino struggled to make the same kind of impact. His next few films – 1997’s Jackie Brown, 2003’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 - all found a niche audience, as none of them boasted the broad appeal of Pulp.
Commercially – and probably artistically – Tarantino hit his nadir with 2007’s Death Proof. Part of a double feature with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the Grindhouse package tanked at the box office, as it barely cleared the $25 million mark. Maybe no one should’ve expected two throwback 70s-style action flicks to score big bucks, but given both directors’ prior successes, it had to go down as a flop.
After the failure of Grindhouse, it started to look more and more like Tarantino would go down the Kevin Smith path: a director with a loyal but small following who rarely produces work that appeals beyond that niche. That didn’t mean Tarantino didn’t create good movies; it just seemed to indicate that he couldn’t make anything that went beyond his cult audience.
In 2009, Inglourious Basterds changed that. While its $120 million US take didn’t break any records, it became Tarantino’s highest-grossing flick to that point, as it passed the $107 million of Pulp. It also snared Tarantino his first writing and directing Oscar nominations since Pulp - and got a Best Picture nod, too.
Could Tarantino continue this trend with 2012’s Django Unchained? Yup – and he improved on it. Not only did Unchained earn a solid $162 million – 33 percent more than Basterds - but also it got Best Picture and Best Screenplay nominations. Alas, Tarantino didn’t earn another Best Director nod, but at least he took home a trophy this time, as he won the Best Screenplay award.
Remarkably, Christoph Waltz snagged Best Supporting Actor prizes for both Basterds and Unchained - perhaps he deserves a lot of the credit for Tarantino’s renewed success. Whatever the case, it’s good to have QT back on top, as it was a shame to see such a talented filmmaker fade from the spotlight.
Set in 1858, a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) seeks someone who can help him find prey called the Brittle brothers. He encounters a line of chained slaves and inquires if any of them can assist. A slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) states he can identify the Brittles so Schultz offers to buy him, but his owners don’t care for the doctor and they resist. This doesn’t go well for them in the face of the quick-shooting Schultz, so we end up with some corpses, Django as the doctor’s partner, and a bunch of freed slaves.
We follow the adventures of Django and Schultz as dual bounty hunters and also see how Django’s backstory influences their affairs. Once married to Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), they tried to escape but got caught and sold to separate owners. Django wants to reunite with his beloved, so we see how his bounty hunting leads him back to her – and her owner, Southern dandy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
If I didn’t think so before I saw this film, Unchained convinced me that Tarantino is arguably the best director in movies today. As I noted when I reviewed Zero Dark Thirty, Tarantino takes flawed material and makes it great. There’s nothing in Unchained that screams “Oscar-nominated epic”, but darned if Tarantino doesn’t create the proverbial silk purse.
This can be a sight to behold, as Tarantino’s touch rarely fails him. His eye for captivating visuals remains intact, as demonstrated frequently here. Take one sniper scene, for example. Django aims at a rider on a horse and shoots off his target. In the hands of most directors, this would become an ordinary, shoot-hit-fall sequence.
But not Tarantino. As the segment progresses, he doesn’t show us the rider. Instead, he focuses on the horse, so when the bullet hits, the camera doesn’t change perspective; we simply observe as the rider spill out of view.
Tarantino packs the film with other inventive touches and continues his traditional skill in terms of musical choices. Tarantino doesn’t shy from seemingly anachronistic selections, all of which work. If almost anyone else would inject hip-hop into a pre-Civil War film, the result would look silly, but Tarantino pulls it off with ease; one never even becomes conscious of the disconnect between period and music. Nothing here dazzles quite like “Cat People” in Basterds, but the songs suit the film – and often elevate it.
As do the actors. As mentioned earlier, Waltz won his second Oscar as Schultz, though I’m not quite sure he deserved it. While I feel Waltz does well in the role, I don’t know why the Academy singled him out; his Schultz is an involving performance, but he feels like an alternate “good guy” flavor on Basterd’s Colonel Landa.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Waltz’s award comes from the fact it meant others who may’ve been more deserving got ignored. In particular, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson could claim to get the shaft, as both offer excellent work with no Oscar love to come their way. Indeed, both offer more impressive work than Waltz; I suspect the Academy may’ve looked his way because he gets the most noble character of the three. They’re better, though.
One could argue Jackson gets the most challenging role of the bunch because he plays the character with whom we feel the least sympathy. When we go into a film of this sort, we expect to see White People Behaving Badly, but to view an African-American who shows such antagonism toward his own people, it becomes a more startling sight – and it must be tougher for an actor to take on such a part.
At no time does Jackson attempt to soften the edges of Stephen, Candie’s lifelong chief house slave. He digs into the role with all the necessary “Stockholm Syndrome” glory and turns the part into a cruel, vindictive piece of work without a single gesture to wink at the camera or tone down the darkness. It’s a remarkable performance that the Academy should’ve recognized.
At its core, Unchained operates as a 19th Century variation on Inglourious Basterds: a wild, bloody revenge fantasy. As was the case with the earlier film, Quentin Tarantino takes drive-in fare and turns it into art. I don’t like Unchained quite as much as its immediate predecessor, but it still offers a vivid, satisfying adventure that reminds us that few filmmakers today can match the mastery shown by Tarantino.