Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s 7th outing as Writer / Director and takes us back to his love of the Spaghetti Western. It tells the story of the black slave Django’s escape from bondage in a pre-civil war america at the hands of the bounty hunter Dr Schultz. The two of them set off on a lawful rampage of bounty collection before venturing into the heartlands of Mississippi to find and liberate Django’s wife from the Candieland estate.
Down the years I have seen all of Tarantino’s films and this follows a very similar vein to the ones before it. Whilst I am not his biggest fan I have always enjoyed them (ignoring Kill Bill pt2 – snore) but never really felt the need to add any of them to my DVD/Bluray collection. In fact I think I preferred his early work to what has followed and nothing since Jacky Brown has warranted a second watch!
The film is 165 minutes long and feels uncomfortably so, in fact it is incredibly self-indulgent (which I suppose is another of Tarantino’s hallmarks) and I would reckon very little got left on the cutting room floor. Artistically there is every cliché of a Sergio Leone movie in here whether riding into the sunset or glaring 70s style soundtrack and even the odd homage to some of his other favourite movies (the one I spotted was an homage to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). Having said that this is still a very Tarantinoesque film so if you are a fan you won’t be disappointed.
Jamie Foxx plays the freed slave Django and whilst this is the best thing I have seen him in, I haven’t watched particularly many of his more respected leading performances. All I could think during this movie was that he was channelling Denzel Washington, and even looked like him too. Even on the movie poster before I saw the film I saw his face and misread Kerry Washington and assumed it was Denzel in the lead! Still he plays the part as well as the script allows but sadly the script is pretty one dimensional.
Christopher Waltz plays Dr Schultz the supposed Dentist turned Bounty Hunter who frees Django in return for his assistance in identifying three outlaws who were once overseers on Dhango’s previous plantation. He is absolutely stunning! I know he won many accolades for his role in Inglourious Basterds, but I think he is even better here. Initially I mistook him for Harry Groener (Mayor Richard Wilkins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV Series) as the beards masked a lot of people I kind of thought I recognised through the movie. Both Waltz and Groener have German roots (as fits the character) and there must be something in their Teutonic upbringing that leads to their similarity of performance. Perhaps he was better written than the rest, but he really does stand out from the crowd here with equal amounts of sincerity, sarcasm and confidence thrown into the mix.
The rest of the ‘white’ cast are there to be poked fun at and not one of them has any real subtlety or depth. The likes of Don Johnson as Big Daddy and the rest of his KKK brethren are just there to act as foil for the wit of Dr Schultz or the target of one of the hundreds of bullets fired throughout. In fact this is a very bloody film. Imagine if the black and white fight scene in Kill Bill pt 1 had been in technicolor and that will help you imagine the level of gore you can expect.
This also marks the first outing for Leonardo DiCaprio as a bad guy and I read elsewhere that he was concerned that the level of profanity and racism shown by his character was over the top and that QT told him to just go with it or he would be seen as a failure! A bit harsh I think, however his Calvin Candie comes across as a overgrown spoiled child with a silly beard and a potty mouth!
Whilst there are a couple of female characters of note in the film, none are memorable and no-one will be on anyone’s awards radar either. In fact the only one that really caught my attention was the recurring strange woman in the red bandanna, who looked like she might be important before getting shot randomly late on in the film with no further explanation.
That just leaves us with Samuel L. Jackson. SLJ plays Stephen the head of the Candieland serving staff and, for want of a better term, Butler. This is a character role unlike any I have ever seen him play and at first I really didn’t get his character at all. His appearance is bizarre, making me think of the fake black make-up worn in the 60s and 70s in programmes like The Black and White Minstrel Show, and his character was so caricatured that I thought that was what he was trying to pastiche. His character grows towards the end of the film and at least that laid to rest some of my doubts, but I still can’t call his performance remarkable, although certainly it was memorable.
I could tell you how this film is an indictment of the woes of slavery but I am not certain that that was the message that QT is trying to put across, rather than a ‘Look what I did Ma!’ If you like Tarantino films or Westerns then you will like this film. If you have an iron stomach and an iron bladder you will enjoy this film. Otherwise stay away!