After years of threatening to do so, Quentin Tarantino has finally made his Western, or Southern as he would have it known. Django Unchained takes place in 1858 in Texas and its surrounding states. On the eve of the Civil War and with slavery still thriving in the South, a German Dentist called Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) comes across a slave he has been looking for called Django (Jamie Foxx). Shultz, a Dentist turned bounty hunter frees Django on the promise that the former slave will help him track down three overseers who Django can recognise. Once the men are dead and Shultz has his bounty, he promises Django $75 dollars and a horse but decides to further help the man when he discovers that his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has been cruelly separated from her husband and sold to the wicked Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio).
As with any Tarantino film there have been moths of anticipation for the release of Django Unchained and the fact that it received five Oscar nominations and two Golden Globe wins before it was even released in the UK further heightened my excitement for its arrival. In the end the film doesn’t disappoint. It is a fantastic mix of drama, comedy, cruelty and violence and features a typically excellent screenplay and some terrific performances but a plodding finale and long run time stop it from in my eyes joining the likes of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction at the top of the Director’s cannon.
Despite its harrowing subject matter, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s funniest film, for the first hour and a half anyway. I rarely laugh as so much at most comedies and certainly didn’t expect this film to be as funny as it was. I was prepared for a violent and tough film full of horrible images and despicable cruelties. The film often delivers that too but it has a lighter side which makes the first half incredibly fun. Even with the humour you can never escape the fact that this film is about slavery and it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the barbaric devices and methods used to keep black people subdued. I’ve seen some of the items used at a slavery museum in Liverpool but to see them used up close on film is truly saddening. What makes it worse is that what the film shows are just a fraction of the horrors over a millisecond of time compared to the real thing. One of the most difficult things to watch was the mandingo fight. This was something that I wasn’t aware of before hearing about the movie and is utterly barbaric and disgusting. Typically, Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing his audience as much as he is able to get away with. A later scene featuring dogs also makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The movie is as always well written by Tarantino but I fear it is far from his best. Watching Pulp Fiction on the same day probably doesn’t help but I feel that Tarantino has produced several better scripts than this one. Even so it is still excellent as an above average Tarantino script is generally well above an average script. Here he writes in some great characters. Django is a fun character to watch and Jamie Foxx’s natural swagger and arrogance matches his characters. In a way Django is before his time and unlike many of the other black characters, he doesn’t see that it is his place to be owned and serve. It is unfortunate for Django and Fox that he is surrounded by characters that squeeze him out and occasionally the central character fades into the background. Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz is an example of Tarantino working at his best. Shultz is elegant, smart, swarve and deadly and is the real driving force behind the narrative. Waltz is absolutely terrific and deserves his awards recognition. His teaming with Tarantino currently stands up as one of the best Director-Actor partnerships of the last decade. I’d heard a lot of good things about Leonardo DiCaprio before seeing the film and he is very good. His character of the spoiled plantation owner is vicious and horrid and there were cheers from the audience when his flower got damaged. One of the best characters is played by another of Tarantino’s frequent collaborators, Samuel L. Jackson. Having been at a career best for Pulp Fiction, Jackson is on great form here playing what he calls ‘the most evil negro in history’. Jackson’s Stephen is a head slave on Candy’s plantation and hates black people as much as some of the white characters. He not only accepts his place in the world but makes full use of his position not only to rule with an iron fist over the other slaves but also influence the main house. His is a complex character who as it turns out makes a lot of the big decisions on the Candy Plantation. Tarantino of course has a small cameo but his Australian accent feels like a misstep.
A white man making a film about slavery would always draw criticism and Tarantino has faced a fair amount. I don’t personally see the problem with a white person making a film like this but I do fear that Django’s success too often comes with the help of Dr. Shultz. Occasionally it feels as though it is white guilt that gets Django where he is going rather than black strength, intelligence etc. I do believe though that Tarantino made the film with the best intentions and has a history of creating tales of revenge from a downtrodden perspective. Kill Bill (women), Inglorious Basterds (Jews) and now Django Unchained (slaves) are all tales of revenge as told from the perspective of those who are often forgotten in cinema. It is true that Tarantino has put his unique spin on each film but their likes would probably have not been made otherwise. The frequent use of the word which shall not be muttered is in keeping with the characters and period in my opinion.
Django’s soundtrack differs slightly from many of the Director’s most famous but is still recognisably Tarantino-esque. As well as traditional Western themes such as Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Fur Elise the soundtrack also features several pieces composed especially for the movie including songs by John Legend, Rick Ross and Western legend Ennio Morricone. The soundtrack often plays slightly more in the background that in some of Tarantino’s films but as usual it is well judged and works well. Tarantino evokes the sense of the traditional Western with cinematography that takes in wide vistas, slow travelling montages, outlined figures in shadow and some beautiful set design. He also adds his own touches such as quick zoom with a swoosh sound and the bloody violence. The few old towns that are encountered look terrific and ooze period detail. The costumes are also excellent not only fit well within the created universe but also have the power to entertain.
Django Unchained is certainly a great film and I enjoyed huge swathes of it but once a vital character leaves the film it lost something. There is an extra half an hour when you expect the ending is close and although this gives Django a chance to get even it didn’t grab me as much as the opening two hours. There is also a huge shootout towards the end which despite the crowd pleasing gore, didn’t really add anything to the story. Overall though Django is a fun film which takes a sideways view at a tough issue. It is recognisably Tarantino but more traditional than many of his films and I thought that it lived up to my expectations.
- Django wears sunglasses which weren't invented until 1929. The word motherfucker wasn't recorded until 1918.
- There is short a post credits scene which is worth waiting for.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen and Kurt Russell all had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts.