Principal Cast : Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L Jackson, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dana Michelle Gourrier, Franco Nero.
Synopsis: With the help of a German bounty-hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal plantation-owner in Mississippi.
The D is Silent.
Violent, stylish, bloody and controversial: it wouldn’t be a Tarantino flick is it wasn’t any of those things. Django Unchained, a riff on the spaghetti western films of the 70’s, sees Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz team up as a pair of bounty hunters, and gives Quentin Tarantino’s career yet another critical and commercial hit. Although I’m inclined to agree that the four adjectives I’ve used to open this review are more than adequate to describe the film therein, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the whole enterprise feels like everyone’s having a great deal of fun. This term is possibly insulting in describing a film where half the cast play slaves, and the copious blood spilled through gunshots is – while gloriously shot – something approaching overkill compared to the rest of the movie; the cast seem to get the joke. Tarantino laces his film with wit, charm and pure evil, liberally dosed with human ineptness and a delight in the quiet before the storm. His last major film, Inglourious Basterds, was widely considered to be his best film to date, Pulp Fiction aside, and it’s my opinion that that film is his most accomplished project for story, character and breadth of action. So what makes Django Unchained a better film than Basterds, if indeed that’s the case?
1858, America’s Deep South – former dentist now bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) locates and frees captured slave Django (Jamie Foxx), from captivity. Schultz needs to know where he can find and kill the Brittle Brothers, and Django has that information. Forming an unlikely partnership, Django and Schultz arrive at the plantation where the Brittle Brothers are in hiding, and kill them. Django decides to make money claiming bounties with Schultz, before revealing that his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is being held captive by a cruel and sly plantation owner by the name of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django and Schultz fake their way into Candie’s company by claiming to be owners of Mandingo Fighters (black men who fight to the death in backroom brawls), and locate Broomhilda; in order to free her, however, from the indentured slavery of Candie at his plantation known as “Candyland”, they must strike a deal with him. Not to be outdone, Candie’s loyal negro servant, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), uncovers the truth about Django and Broomhilda’s relationship, putting Django’s plans to rescue her in grave danger of failing.
The primary controversy surrounding Django Unchained has been with regards to Tarantino’s constant use (some might say overuse) of the term “nigger”, in the script. While nowadays the term is considered derogatory and offensive and has fallen out of favour in public use – although it seems modern rap artists still find it a useful lyric in much of their material – at the time Django Unchained is set, pre-Civil War America, the term was in common usage, albeit still in a derogatory way. Contextually, Tarantino’s use of the term is accurate, although it must be pointed out that his use of it in such a pulpishly light-hearted way as this might border on slightly antagonistic. In saying that, the moment Samuel L Jackson’s elderly black slave comes out and starts his diatribe about “the nigger on the nag”, referring to Django’s arrival at Candyland on his horse, that’s when I forgave this films use of the term to entertain, rather than shock. If, however, you think the boundary of good taste predicates the need for you not to hear the term repeated over and over throughout the film, then perhaps you’ll want to avoid Tarantino’s Django.
Personally, I found Django Unchained an absolute blast. Sure, it runs a little overlong, and there’s issues with the mid-section that drags the story down a little, but the overall tone and tempo of the film is one of typically Tarantino-esque passion for the subject and the style of this kind of story. The cast are sublimely good, from Jamie Foxx all the way down to the background players (spot Wolf Creek villain, Aussie John Jarrat, late in the piece using the term “malarkey” with a broad local drawl!) and everyone in between, and they all seem to get the joke that this is all supposed to be cheeky fun. Unless I’m getting the wrong idea about how to approach Django Unchained, that is. Tarantino’s scripting is the key to this film’s success, and as usual, he’s as verbose and calculatingly cool as ever. Moments of humour and fist-pumping “hells yeah” cool are interspersed with the graphic violence, and QT’s traditionally flippant dialogue, combine to deliver a film fuelled by the hatred of racism and human evil, while celebrating the ultimate revenge on The Man.
Leading the charge is Jamie Foxx and his screen partner Christoph Waltz, the latter of whom deserves an Oscar for his role as ex-dentist Schultz; both these actors are utterly compelling in their respective parts. Foxx is brooding and stone-cold as Django, with an Eastwood-esque hardness behind his eyes that probably represents much of the resentment of African American sentiment to the slave era of the United States. Waltz is breezily effortless as Schultz, his winning smile and the cheeky glint in his eye as he strides through the American south in his mission to get rich from bounty hunting just mesmerizing to watch. His tete a tete’s with DiCaprio during the film’s latter half are superbly written, filmed and executed. DiCaprio, as the truly evil Calvin Candie, commands the screen every time he’s on it – he’s the lynchpin of Tarantino’s diatribe against overt racism in this film, and he shoulders the combined hatred of the entire production. His calculating and methodical examination of Negro life and its “failings” are unquestionably heinous, but the film needs this focus for us to develop a hate for him that pays off during the climactic finale.
Sam Jackson, as Stephen, is terrific. Django’s nickname for him – Snowball – is indicative of Jackson’s appearance, sporting white hair contrasting heavily against his dark skin. Jackson goes all out for this role, and at times he actually seems to disappear into the part. Unfortunately, Jackson is still Jackson, and most of the time it still feels like he’s “playing a part” instead of inhabiting a role. It’s not a bad thing in this instance, because the role is so well written (and performed), but one gets the impression that Jackson’s persona is starting to wear out its welcome by the time the blood flows at the end. Kerry Washington, as Django’s wife Broomhilda, is criminally underwritten and given little to do other than provide focus for Django and Schultz’s quest to obtain her; the throwback to the badly written female roles in spaghetti westerns and this kind of pulp storytelling is probably accurate, but I wanted to see more of the relationship between her and Django unfold, if only to provide more emotional weight to their separation and eventual reunion.
Sharp eyed observers will spot the original Django, Franco Nero, as a Mandingo fight promoter during Schultz and Django’s first encounter with Candie, while a smattering of other Tarantino players appear throughout as well: Michael Parks, Zoe Bell and Robert Carradine all show up in bit-parts. Tarantino even appears in a minor role towards the end, and, in a rare case of hubris (ha!) for the director, has one of the years best death scenes all to himself! The ensemble feel of the film is, in a word, delightful. Nobody gives a dull performance, even if the film’s often-visual garrulousness lends itself less to subtlety and more to sledgehammer tone. The scathing portrayal of racism and slavery by Tarantino holds no fear from the audience – this film doesn’t skirt the issue, nor does it glorify it to the point of celebration, rather, it upbraids the sanctioning of slavery in the first place as an inhumane activity. Although Tarantino’s story is serious in nature, his portrayal of it is not really apropos to the way it could have been done in a traditional Hollywood picture.
As with most Tarantino films, there’s a sense of whimsy throughout – slight, but definitely noticeable – as if, like Basterds, this film is a fantasy instead of a history; I’d dispute anyone who argues the film is gratuitous in its core themes, but there are problems with the film that cause disjointed narrative issues which jar the senses. The key element which prevents this film from really hitting home is the excessive blood and “gore” of the gunshots throughout the film. Heads explode, blood spurts through the air, bodies rent across the landscape as Tarantino injects a lot of his Kill Bill enthusiasm for geysers of blood into the frame; from a creative standpoint, it certainly adds a lot of flair to proceedings, but I found myself dragged out of the story whenever gunplay came into it: given the wretched, churning tone of the story proper, the casual fantasy of fountains of blood felt wrong within the context of what was being shown. If there’s any major negative to the film, that would be my only real complaint. The film’s length has been noted as well, with Django Unchained running nearly 3 hours, and one might chastise Tarantino for excessive storytelling to get the film to this running time. However, not once did I look at my watch, which is an indication of the strength of Tarantino’s narrative to keep me engaged. The mid-section of the film, just prior to Django and Schultz arriving at Candie’s townhouse, sags a little (although it’s brightened by a hilarious pre-KKK sequence involving Don Johnson and Jonah Hill with a group of pillowcase-wearing lynch mob fanatics intent on killing Django) which means after the second or third re-watch, the fast-forward button might come in for some use, but thankfully the majority of the film moves at a fairly cracking pace.
I also felt the ending could have been a lot tighter than it was. You get the sense that after the showdown with Candie, and the final fate of that character, the film needed to wrap up rather quickly, but anyone checking their watch would note the film has a ways to go after that. A violent, bloody gunfight in Candie’s mansion, as well as a…. gripping…. scene between Django and one of Candie’s henchmen, played with wicked deliciousness by Walton Goggins, add to the bulky run-time, and although I’m prepared to admit that I enjoyed these scenes, it felt as if Tarantino was unwilling to really let this film go. The fact the film ends some twenty minutes after your central villain meets his demise will grate on many, and no doubt the detractors will point to Tarantino’s lack of reserve when it comes to this kind of cinematic gratuity, but instead of being disappointed the film kinda tripped towards the closing credits, instead of striding confidently, the end result is still far above what many other directors might have accomplished. Tarantino, even at his most convoluted, is still entertaining.
If you’re a fan of cinema, and have a passing knowledge of Tarantino’s work, you’ll find plenty to enjoy about Django Unchained. It’s more linear than any of his previous works (even Basterds), although it plays into Tarantino’s sense of visual style and cut-and-paste homage to the Django films of decades past. I look forward to watching this film again and basking in its unfolding onion-skin sense of itself, like a fine wine improving once you take the cork out. I’d say it ranks third behind Argo and Les Misèrables from the 2012 crop of Oscar nominees, and although third isn’t first, in this instance that’s some exceptional company indeed. Controversial content aside, Django Unchained is a bloody, bloody brilliant film from Quentin Tarantino. More of these, please sir.