Film Review: Django Unchained
The filmography of Quentin Tarantino has often been greeted with mixed reception. From his genius works of the 1990s in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs to the lackluster Death Proof, questions have been raised about whether style had become more important than substance. Django Unchained, however, lies right in the heart of arguably Tarantino’s greatest love – the spaghetti western – and it is an electrifying return-to-form as he revives the cult hero Django.
Make no mistake; this is not a film for the faint-hearted. Tarantino is by no means prudish, with the liberal use of the ‘N-word’ (even in its historical context, its use here is not for the easily offended), a love of dark humour and a penchant for heavy gore and violence, but this is nothing new for the director or those who know his works. And it’s most certainly not a reason why you shouldn’t see Django Unchained.
Tarantino’s passion for pulp fiction and cinema of the 1960s and 1970s really shows in his aesthetics and score. His flair for cinematography is clear in Django, with gorgeous golden hues ringing out tones of sepia throughout the film and glorious western sunsets that are a sight to behold – bringing back all the nostalgia of the beloved spaghetti western. Of course, the stylization of those westerns also returns – from the 1960s style opening titles to the slow-shutter style shots used on occasion. Tarantino, as proven, also has a certain knack for picking out a good soundtrack, and with the dramatic tunes of Ennio Morricone recalling all the memories of the great western, there are (perhaps) surprisingly a few modern tracks that are a little jarring amongst the gritty, old America setting. Rick Ross’ rap ‘100 Black Coffins’ just one of a few examples, if the most obvious.
What really makes Django Unchained shine, however, is a winning screenplay that harkens back to the brilliance of Pulp Fiction and its high quotability factor. There are many fantastic moments to be enjoyed. In particular, a sequence involving an extremist group arguing about the practicality of wearing white hoods which makes for one of the most entertaining scenes of the last year (and perhaps the most hilarious). Whilst the topics and themes are deliberately controversial (not unlike Inglourious Basterds), there is an intriguing balance of heroes and villains within both races involved. Tarantino is not patronizing in his approach to the subject, but raises a hero along the same veins of Jack Arnold’s 1975 film, The Black Bounty Killer.
Jamie Foxx slips into the role of Django with ease, oozing charisma and providing some fantastic comedic moments. At times though, he feels like a minor character in his own tale, and when he is given the chance to explore his romance with Broomhilda (Kerry Washington – who has such little dialogue one wonders at times if she is just a cameo) is so underplayed that there is no real excitement to the finale, the tension having already reached its peak with the penultimate act. As a result, the ending – and Django’s character – falls a little flat. His suave swagger and smooth, lyrical voice are also a problem, clashing against the gritty nature of the other characters as well as the setting. But perhaps the biggest problem (partially due to the underwritten Django) for Jamie Foxx is that he is outdone by the incredible powerhouse performances of Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.
Waltz is in his element as the vivacious Dr. King Schultz, the German dentist-cum-bounty hunter. Following directly on from his incredible performance as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz continues to impress with his highly entertaining outing as Schultz, who stands out as one of the best characters in Tarantino’s back catalogue. His many one-liners will no doubt be quoted again and again by film fans for years to come.
DiCaprio surprises in his unlikely role as the villain Calvin Candie (a particularly difficult role to play in which he is considerably racist and cruel) and his smooth-talking charm and crocodile smile make him all the more terrifying when he gets angry. He’s like a time bomb waiting to explode, and in some scenes the tension builds up almost painfully as the audience is forced to watch in anticipation of his reaction. He’s one of Tarantino’s most horrifying, despicable characters yet, and DiCaprio plays him wonderfully, but he’s not nearly as unexpectedly chilling as his house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Beneath sunken, tired, furious eyes, Stephen watches like a hawk for anything suspicious in the house, turning against his own people in favour of his ‘Master’ – the sheer definition of ‘Uncle Tom’. Stephen is perhaps the most dangerous because, having been a slave himself and having lived a long, hard life, he knows exactly what makes a slave suffer the most – emotionally and physically. Stephen actually ends up using the ‘N-word’ more antagonistically than anyone else in the film, hurling it around with hate and spite. Perhaps, with hate and spite for what he’s become. He’s the most intriguing character of the picture, and of Tarantino’s work to date.
Whilst Django Unchained is not without fault, it is certainly a storming return to glory for Tarantino, and his love of 1960s and 1970s cinema, particularly Westerns, shine through clearly in the film so that we too can share his passion by way of a winning screenplay and brilliant performances. Yes, it’s violent. Yes, it’s controversial. Controversy creates discussion, as Tarantino himself has said. If you can stomach it, you’re in for a real treat.