Movie Review: Django UnchainedPosted: January 24, 2013
As I was leaving the cinema at the end of this flick today the middle aged couple along from me, who I’d been a bit surprised to see enter the screening, asked me if I’d enjoyed the movie. It was a tough question, but on the whole I have to say yes, yes I did enjoy.
I was rather glad I had, and that my fears that Quentin Tarantino’s powers waning were unfounded, this is a strong, powerful movie from the director and I’d say his best work since Kill Bill Vol 1 (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Vol 2, but for me the first half was the more impressive).
The movie is set shortly before the American Civil War in the South, where slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is bought by King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for three criminals that Django can identify. He offers Django a deal, where he will give him his freedom after they track down the three outlaws. Django agrees and they go after them, with Django displaying some skill and revealing that his wife was taken from him and sold elsewhere, and he intends to find her.
Django shows skill with a gun and Schultz warms to him. Schultz finds the slave trade abhorrent and treats Django as an equal, leading to them forming a successful team as bounty hunters for the winter, and stirred by Django’s story agrees to help him track down his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). This brings them into contact with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave owner who purchased Broomhilda and runs a big plantation, Candyland. He’s a cruel, sadistic master and takes pleasure in running “mandingo fights” where slaves fight viciously to the death.
Posing as someone who wants to invest in the “sport”, Schultz and Django visit the plantation and try and work out how they can get Broomhilda away, but can they really con Candie, especially as his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is mistrustful of Django and begins to suspect that Broomhilda and Django know each other.
It’s a phenomenal film, and while there are plenty of signature Tarantino flourishes at it’s heart it’s a very simple Western tale of revenge and loss, but focuses on slavery which is usually left out or in the background in the genre. It’s a brilliant film for the genre with Tarantino delivering the gunfights in his now trademark OTT style. Similar to spaghetti westerns there are lashings of blood and people almost explode depending on what they’re hit with. The shootouts are well choreographed mayhem and endlessly entertaining.
Why the question of enjoyment was a tough one comes down to the rest of the violence in the film, which is at times hard watching. But, when dealing with something as unsavoury and vicious as the treatment of slaves, that’s as it should be. To sugar coat or tone it down would be a cop out, and while some of the violence is cartoony and gory fun, there are moments where Tarantino just lets the horror stand for itself. The scenes of whipping are tough to take, as are the other punishments doled out for disobedient slaves and there’s a particularly sickening fight which is rendered even more horrific thanks to the sadistic glee of Candie as he watches.
But on the whole, it’s an entertaining film and the uncomfortable moments are portrayed in a way which in no way condones them, and Candie, despite DiCaprio’s charisma is a detestable character. He’s a true villain, his southern manners and amiable nature never quite masking the loathsome racism that lurks within, its a brave performance from DiCaprio who gives it his all and really delivers an extremely unlikable yet magnetic on screen performance.
Jamie Foxx brings this barely restrained fury to the title role, while also allowing moments of tenderness shine through such as when he discusses his wife, or when he listens to Schultz recount a German folk tale. He plays the role in a really deadpan, cold blooded way for the most part, which totally works and feels like a good choice given the film’s clear debt to the spaghetti western sub-genre, a world populated by terse, ruthless antiheroes.
The character is clearly conflicted and affected by the things he witnesses at Candyland, but there’s also a sense that he doesn’t care except for him and his. His fury and anger seems to be aimed at the world in general, and whether playing up to the charade of being a black slaver or not he shows little compassion for many of the slaves he encounters.
But Foxx rather has the limelight stolen from him by Waltz as Schultz. Tarantino has talked of making a western for years, but I’m rather glad he waited until after working with Waltz on Inglourious Basterds, where Waltz was possibly the best thing, as the role is clearly written for the actor, and Waltz makes Schultz an extremely warm and likable character. He may be a bounty hunter, but Waltz aided by Tarantino’s script shows that he’s rather a moral man and that as an outsider he can see the evil of slavery more than any American character could. He’s an outsider, which means he finds it easier to get along with Django, who also lives on the fringes of society, and his warmth to Django and affectionate, jokey manner makes them a rather endearing buddy duo.
Schultz is clearly the softer hearted of the two, and Waltz makes him this smart, decent and witty character that you warm to immediately. In a landscape populated by idiots and bigots, his wit and kindness shine through.
The other really strong performance in this movie comes from Samuel L Jackson, who really gets stuck into his role as the detestable Stephen, Candie’s loyal and cruel slave. Initially he appears as this rather confused, old “Uncle Tom” figure but SLJ uses his eyes to suggest a darker, calculating and ruthless side within, which over the course of the film he reveals more and more of. It’s a very strong performance and like DiCaprio’s it’s a brave turn in taking on a character who has no redeeming features, and a powerful performance.
The rest of the cast all do admirably well with Kerry Washington, Don Johnson (as plantation owner “Big Daddy”) and Walton Goggins (as one of Candie’s thugs) especially standing out. The film is loaded with Tarantino regulars (Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Zoe Bell) along with some big names, both old and new cropping up in smaller roles, including Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern and Amber Tamblyn.
I feel I should address two of the main things that seem to come up regarding the film- the length and the use of the word “nigger” in the script. With regards to length, I didn’t find it to be overly long and for me the film never dragged and kept moving well enough.
As for the language, while it has cropped up in Tarantino’s other work, here I thought the use of the n-word was kind of justified. The film is about slavery and the frequent use of the term shows the way that many of the characters view the black characters, and the disrespect and opinion of them being less than human. Having a film where racism and slavery play such a key part and leaving out any racist epithets would have felt false, and while it’s hardly comfortable for modern audiences it kind of rings true and doesn’t feel gratuitous here.
Racial slurs aside, the script is a delight, with some great character speeches and some good lines throughout. Several times throughout the screening it got laughs and it zips along with Tarantino’s trademark panache and jet black humour, and there’s a fabulous scene where proto-Klansmen argue about their hoods which had me laughing out loud.
So, yeah, Tarantino didn’t disappoint me and it’s a return to form for the director after what, for me, were a couple of missteps and stumbles.
Verdict: A well written and well made movie, boasting fine performances and entertaining action sequences. Some of the film might make for tough viewing but given the subject matter that should be expected. The most entertaining Tarantino’s been in years and more than a homage it’s actually quite a good western in it’s own right. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.