Genre: Adventure, Drama, Western
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Typical, quirky Tarantino western music helps the picture fade in. Typical, quirky Tarantino titles fill the screen. In the background a line of slaves are walked through the desert, chained to one another. They continue through the heat, through the day, and eventually find themselves struggling through the forest, in the dark, in the cold. The titles end, the wind whistles through the trees. The slave owners stop their troop from moving forward when they see a carriage approaching them. The carriage belongs to Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist looking to do business. Dr Shultz confirms that these are the slave traders he is looking for and begins to sift among the slaves, searching for the one who was once owned by the Brittle Brothers. He comes across one slave and asks his name. ‘Django‘ is the reply. ‘Then you are exactly the one I’m looking for‘, Dr Shultz musters back.
This is where it all begins – the blood, the violence, the profanity. Everything about the film is Tarantino-esque, as if it’s the film he really wanted to make and no one could stand in his way. It’s packed with elements that any other writer/director would not get away with and the producers of this movie really have been brave in backing it. Even stars of the film were unsure of the material. Will Smith didn’t want the part of Django, despite pressure from his agents to accept and even DiCaprio was hesitant. The film carries disgusting themes of racism and slavery, and it’s a shock to see it being highly commended by the Academy. It isn’t the sort of film you would expect the Oscars to be placing on a pedestal. Despite it being unlike other Oscar nominated films, it’s fair to say it should be congratulated for what it is. Yes it does hit marks that are disturbing. Yes the violence at times is unwatchable. And yes this is Tarantino doing exactly what Tarantino does – not listening and make exactly what he wants. It’s everything an Academy film isn’t but at the same time it’s so good for it.
During the opening encounter, Dr Shultz buys Django’s freedom before allowing the other slaves to attack their owners. Dr Shultz is a bounty hunter, killing bad folk for big money. He needs Django’s help to find the Brittle Brothers, three crooks next on Dr Shultz’s list. In return Shultz is offering Django his freedom. After a run in with a town Sheriff, and then with the Marshall, the new partnership set off to every plantation until they find the Brittle Brothers. Django has a past with these Brothers. They whipped his wife in front of him and Django hasn’t seen his wife since. When they finally find the Brittle Brothers, Django takes matters into his own hands and kills them before Shultz has the chance.
So Shultz trains Django up and agrees to rescue his wife, who they now understand is in possession of notorious salve trader, and hard bargainer, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie won’t take their request to buy a slave girl lightly, hence they come up with a plan to acquire one of Candie’s prize possessions; a black fighter he pits off against other slaves for money. With the plan in action the two find themselves at Candie Land, under close scrutiny from Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), an elderly slave of Candies.
I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Tarantino. Some of his work is great but some have simply been too controversial for their own good. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were truly great but Jackie Brown and Kill Bill were let downs. I even found Inglorious Basterds a tough one to enjoy, but despite Django Unchained being a definitive Tarantino film there was something about it that made it feel different from the rest. In his previous films I found my mind wandering during heavy sequences, whereas not once did I feel like that with Django. By stripping back his usual playing with the narrative, Tarantino has given us some characters that we really care about for a change. We don’t know an awful lot about them but they do have an end goal in sight that we really do want to see them achieve.
As usual Tarantino manages to pull some brilliant performances from his cast. Christoph Waltz is fantastic as Shultz and provides us with the most entertaining character. DiCaprio is equally excellent; playing a role we’ve never seen him take on before. He’s frightening, creepy and intriguing. Jamie Foxx is also decent as Django, despite some negative reviews. He took on a tough role and managed to show a complete character arc by the end. At times it does feel like Django is taking a back seat in his own story but this isn’t particularly Foxx’s fault, the character is just nowhere near as interesting as the others. The stand out performer for me though is Samuel L. Jackson. His performance is sinister, fun and unusual. The minute he comes on screen he will have you laughing but you always sense there is more going on with him. In a world where whites rule blacks, he is a black guy claiming to be white. It is a brave role for Jackson to tackle.
There are some other really strong elements that make this film fun. The action and violence is over the top and manic, but there are witty in-jokes aimed at older films, such as Django telling the original Django that the ‘D’ is silent. The running time, however, is far too long and the story doesn’t quite stretch that far. There’s a point where the film could’ve wrapped up but instead Tarantino keeps going for another half an hour. It’s also in this half an hour we get Tarantino’s dreadful cameo, which would have been cut had they ended with the scene that provided the perfect opportunity for a resolution.
The performances are strong, the script is, as usual, very well written, and the bag scene is worth the admission price alone. If you’re a Tarantino fan you’ll not be disappointed.