Quentin Tarantino is a director that tends to elicit strong reactions from his audience (and not infrequently, his peers) and in Django Unchianed, possibly his most accessible film yet, he may have also delivered his most controversial (at least according to Spike Lee) film to date. Django Unchained is a Sergio Leone-style Spaghetti Western set in the deep south two years prior to the Civil War. Focusing on a freed slave named Django and his journey to rescue his still enslaved wife that starts by becoming a bounty hunter. Starring Jamie Foxx as titular character to be unchained, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson with Franco Nero in a small role (trivia: he had previously portrayed the title character in the 1966 film Django).
Django (the “D” is silent”) is a slave that has been freshly sold at auction and separated from his wife, and after a brief and bloody interlude, he becomes the companion of a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz. King and Django get on well, and together they go after the Brittle Brothers (the cruel overseers of Django’s former plantation). Eventually, after a winter of bounty-hunting and bonding they decide to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda. Broomhilda has been bought by Calvin Candie, the owner of a notorious plantation named Candyland. Calvin is brutal, ignorant, and very, very wealthy (a dangerous combination) and his head house-slave, Stephen (a scenery-chewing Samuel L. Jackson), is little better, and quite possibly worse. Essentially, violence ensues, people die, and someone (or multiple people), and I’m not saying who, becomes unchained.
Christoph Waltz was a hell of a find for Quentin Tarantino when he was making Inglourious Basterds, and, in Django Unchained, he reaffirms why everyone was enchanted by his unique charm three years ago: plus, he is a good guy this time. Waltz as a dentist turned bounty hunter walks the fine line between believability and outlandishness and he does it with aplomb, which makes him the ideal Tarantino actor. King Schultz may be the most overtly heroic character in the film, extremely competent, and rarely caught anywhere close to being off-guard, but he still comes across as very human, for example: he hates slavery, but is willing to make use of it for pragmatic reasons.
Django, as portrayed by Jamie Foxx (in his best role in years), is the typical Western hero: out for vengeance, a quick draw, and on a noble mission using ignoble means. Oh, he’s also an escaped slave. Django functions as the (absolutely necessary) straight man for the typical craziness that populates a Tarantino film, whether that craziness is Mandingo fighting, being attacked en masse by a very incompetent KKK precursor group (fact: the Ku Klux Klan did not appear until after the civil war), or wandering around the plantation of a man called “Big Daddy” (if you were to guess he wears a white suit, you would be correct). The best aspect of Foxx’s performance is that Django at the beginning of the film is very different from Django at the end of the film, but the changes we see all happened gradually and naturally throughout the narrative and the performance of Jamie Foxx reflects that.
Leonardo Dicaprio looks like he has a great time playing Calvin Candie, a charming, francophile plantation owner, who just happens to be a massive bastard. His plantation, Candyland, notorious for his fine crop of Mandingo slaves and the brutality in which he enforces his will on those underneath him. I applaud Dicaprio as being the rare major star willing to make Candie a wholly irredeemable villain and just plain unpleasant. There is nothing this man does that is not cringe-inducing and that makes him a great villain, even if he is a bit dim (or more than a bit dim). To compare him to Waltz’s villain in Inglourious Basterds: Col. Hans Landa would do cruel, despicable things out of an apparent sense of efficiency and pragmatism, and not necessarily malice, while Dicaprio’s Calvin Candie does them simply because he can and that they are fun.
The true standout of the film, however, may be Samuel L. Jackson as Calvin Candie’s head house slave, Stephen. Stephen is, in a word (or three), a huge jackass. Jackson goes full-bore into his role and gleefully chews the scenery as a desperate, mean-spirited, and very intelligent and intuitive slave more than willing to spite his fellow slaves in order to make Calvin Candie happy. Stephen is really the factor that makes the oblivious, if malicious, Calvin Candie a dangerous villain for our bounty-hunting heroes and Jackson plays the part superbly.
The weakest element of the film was probably the character of Broomhilda, Django’s wife. Kerry Washington does well with the extremely limited material she was given to work with, but for the primary driving force of the film we need to know much more about her other than that she can speak German. Broomhilda, while certainly a pretty face, is a plot device and not a character, and that is a massive problem (especially for a movie running two hours and forty-five minutes long).
If I am not mistaken, Tarantino has christened Django Unchained a “Southern” and in my mind that is an entirely appropriate term for this film. Tarantino has taken the western aesthetic and applied it to the antebellum south to create a wholly unique movie-watching experience (at least stylistically) . When it comes to his own past work, however, it feels like a retread of around a decade’s worth of material. I am saying this as someone who appreciates the man’s work, but there are only so many bloody revenge fantasies someone can make before it gets old. Tarantino makes a quality film, but he certainly needs to diversify the types of movies that he directs, at least thematically. Side note: he cast himself in a small role, and it was terrible and sort of sad.
The music of Django Unchained was very memorable and unique, with the opening number being particularly catchy. The variety of genres used on the soundtrack was effective when came to reinforcing Tarantino’s mix-and-match(-and-reference) style of film-making, but less so when it came to enhancing the plot as it was playing out. Though I am admittedly still tempted to buy the soundtrack.
I have heard many people complain (on both sides) that Django Unchained is racist against Caucasians or African-Americans or both or kind of one but definitely the other. To those people I have just one thing to say: it isn’t. Are whites portrayed badly for the most part: yes. Is that bad thing: no (keep in mind that is set just prior to the Civil War in Mississippi primarily on plantations). Are black people generally portrayed as being unfairly treated: yes (once again, yada yada yada plantations). Also, the most heroic person in the film is white, and the person I would consider the primary villain, is black. So, in my mind at least, the argument that this film is one-sided one way or the other, does not hold water.
Django Unchained is not Tarantino’s best (nor is it worst), but it might just be his most enjoyable film to date, and I can easily imagine watching it at least another two or three times. He tackled slavery with the same (lack of) subtlety he did the second World War, and applied the same uncompromising attitude to craft a film that works well both as a condemnation of slavery and a unique bit of extremely entertaining popcorn fare. It is also the first Tarantino film to which I hope a sequel is made.