Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio
Django Unchained is set ‘two years before the Civil War’ and tells the story of the eponymous Django who is freed from slavery by the bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, a German expat. After the two become friends, they fulfill some of Schultz’ bounties and travel across the American South, killing crooks and swindlers for money. Often times the wanted men have changed identities and have begun new lives as farmers, cotton farm foremen or even sheriffs. After a successful winter working together, Django convinces Schultz to help him buy back his wife Broomhilda who belongs to the cruel and eccentric plantation owner Calvin J. Candie.
The first act in Django Unchained, when Schultz and Django form their friendship and do their bounty work is when the film is at its most unabashed fun and humorous. The execution of the criminals is bloody but it is cheesy exploitation horror violence with giant torrents of blood gushing in a manner that evokes memories of Evil Dead 2. The comedy in the opening act is unexpectedly frequent and its great stuff. The scene in which the vengeance seeking klansmen hold an unscheduled committee meeting over the poor visibility in their hoods had me in hysterics. When one of them unmasked to reveal Jonah Hill, I felt as though I was momentarily watching a Judd Apatow production.
The second act where Django and Schultz enter the proverbial lion’s den in Calvin Candie’s plantation is when Tarantino shifts focus and the tone of the film tenses enormously. Candie, played by Leonardo De Caprio, is a cruel and blood thirsty man but we also respect his intelligence. As Django and Schultz try to bluff their way into his home posing as managers looking to build a stable of black prize fighters, there is a constant tension in anticipation of Candie uncovering their disguise. Equally, there is the constant threat of Django being provoked by the treatment of the black slaves or his wife that may cause him to unload his six shooter. ‘Unchained’ mode, you could call it.
I loved this second act and it reminded me of the best scenes in Inglorious Basterds with Christoph Waltz’s masterful performance as The Jew Hunter who interrogated French sympathizers that hid Jewish people in their homes.
Unfortunately, Django Unchained, becomes slightly undone by a ridiculously bloated and needlessly long final act where we get the expected bloody finale, only to have a fifteen minute long interlude where Quentin Tarantino does his best Alf Stewart impersonation before we get the bloody finale again. By the time the credits roll, Django Unchained has hit the 165 minute mark. That’s too long for this film. There’s a better 120 minute film in there somewhere. It’s why even critics who have enjoyed the film have rather uncharitably dubbed Django Unchained as ‘Quentin Tarantino masturbating for 3 hours.’
The lack of discipline with the editing is not enough to spoil an otherwise great film though. Once again, Christoph Waltz is the highlight of Tarantino film as Dr King Schultz. Schultz is sharp tongued, witty and surprisingly compassionate for a bounty hunter. We get the sense by the end of the film that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly but is otherwise a humanitarian existing in the harshest of environments in the cruelest of times.
Much has been made of the film’s liberal use of the word ‘nigger’ which clocks in over 100 times in the film. It didn’t bother me particularly. It’s obvious the film has its origins in exploitation cinema and I think it is difficult to deny its prominence in the vernacular of America before the Civil War. I did think it interesting how Tarantino explores how different African Americans come to terms with their plight in the time. Most interesting of course is Samuel L Jackson who is purposefully cast against-type as the negro-hating butler Stephen.
Django Unchained is a film that is more or less in with the quality of Tarantino’s recent work. There are plenty of memorable characters, some great individual scenes and some cracking one liners. But the film is also over indulgent and sadly missing any significant roles for women which is a shame because we know Tarantino can write those roles so well. Still, this is a film worth seeing for Waltz’s performance and a fantastic first act.