Director: Quentin Tarantino
Plot: In 1858, German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Foxx) in his attempts to track down and kill Three outlaw brothers of whom Django has worked for. Upon forging a friendship with one another, the two then conspire to free Django’s wife who is imprisoned in to slavery by a plantation owner (DiCaprio).
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson.
The alternate universe of screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino’s films has taken another step, this time into the most sacred and classic of all of American cinema’s most fabled genres: the Western. Could he make the old guns bang once more, or was he bound by the shackles of his past and the expectations of the genre?
My initial response to such a question was mixed as I struggled between my enjoyment and my education as to whether or not I found Django Unchained to be as sensational as the biggest film critics in the world believed it was. On the one hand was the gripping suspense that had me glued to its every move and on the other was its audacious attempts at mixing every element of every Western sub-genre into one overly long piece which seemed to attribute a White man as the reason for the US to abolish slavery. Upon further deliberation I began to understand that neither hand was more heavily balanced than the other and that Tarantino’s latest offering was both audacious and incredibly entertaining, with some brilliant highs and some worrying lows.
Like Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained is a Tarantino pseudo-historic piece and thus comes with a different set of expectations than any other film. Staples of the East Asian movie scene such as gore, guts and quick cut editing are to be expected as a mechanism for separating story from life in a Tarantino offering, as is comedy and therefore a more light-hearted outlook on its main thematic component – in this case slavery. What Django Unchained offered was a more light-hearted look on the story of slavery through the form of a buddy movie which juxtaposed itself against Spielberg’s similarly timed release Lincoln, and ultimately set it apart as a “Tarantino piece” and not your average slavery laden Western being used to confront modern day issues.
This particular plot-based separation of Django’s setting from the real-world was inviting as a spectacle and therefore entertaining from start to finish. And, despite how Tarantino never shied away from confronting the more brutal aspects of the slave industry (such as wagers in which ‘owners’ would bet on their slave to defeat another in a fight to their quite literal death), the picture was neatly broken up with jokes and other more light-hearted features to ensure that the overall reception of the film was an entertainment spectacle and not an insightful drama.
As an entertainment spectacle Django Unchained is still lacking in a few things and simply over-indulgent in a number of others. The 165 minute run time wasn’t aided by an overly long scene Tarantino seemed to dream up only to allow himself to make a cameo as a particularly poor accented Australian who, for whatever reason, found himself in the old west. Despite how ‘Tarantino-esque’ his supporters would suggest it to be, it wasn’t in any way useful in the grand scheme of the film’s plot and thus was an over-indulgent blemish on the otherwise very well produced screenplay. Another major blotch (and perhaps even dent) on the quality of the picture’s screenplay was its ever-present indications that seemed to indicate that Tarantino wanted to ensure that Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz was the character we were to feel the most emotional investment towards because of his ultimately good attitude, friendly persona, and joke-filled dialogue. The ‘ultimately good’ character of the German bounty hunter in many ways overshadowed the picture’s lead as Django himself was forced to take the back seat as an underwriter to the pair’s adventures throughout the beginning of the story. This isn’t necessarily a knock on the entertainment spectacle but more a knock on the technicality of the screenplay itself. Regardless of how an emotional focus was placed on Schultz (and not Django), the emotional investment was great enough to be passed from teacher (Schultz) to protege (Django) at the appropriate time and thus create an exciting and emotive conclusion to both story and picture.
One aspect of a Tarantino film which hasn’t lacked from his very first completed venture Reservoir Dogs (1992) is the quality of the acting and the actors’ suitability to the role they are chosen for. Here, Jamie Foxx’s lead role may be overshadowed by the sensational support act of Christoph Waltz but the blend he creates throughout the picture of a man transformed from an introverted and oppressed prisoner to the extroverted righteous ‘badass’ is one which is seamless and filled with a subtle comedy that the lead has to be accredited for.
The stand-out is, however, Christoph Waltz’s Oscar and Bafta winning performance as Dr. Schultz. The German is so good that his performance threatens to swallow the film whole as he’s just about the most likeable character of all time – and, for an ever-present good guy, that’s a tough thing to do. When you multiply his character’s dominance over the screenplay with Waltz’s acting dominance over the picture, it was perhaps of luck or judgement that Tarantino acquired Leonardo DiCaprio to play his exact opposite – the ultimate bad guy. DiCaprio’s every action, twitch and breath makes it harder and harder to like this usually loveable screen presence, and the strength of his performance is so riveting that it counterbalances Waltz’s performance and leaves just enough room for Foxx to re-emerge as a credible protagonist.
Another performance of significant note is the performance of Tarantino’s long-term trustee Samuel L. Jackson. The 64 year old underwent a complete bodily transformation to portray his ‘privileged’ slave character and ultimately provided a ‘comedic stooge’ role as convincingly as possible while being nasty enough to remind Django (and the rest of us) that he was a threat to be reckoned with.
Django Unchained is undoubtedly well shot, with some sensational Western backdrops accompanying the adventures of Dr. Schultz and Django in particular. The tributes to the old-school John Ford Western during such scenes was enough to make the picture a visual spectacle of the must-see variety, but when thrown in with the East Asian Cinema adapted blood, gore and brutality, made for the picture to be a must-own. The deep focus shots that accompany the conversations between the two lead protagonists are another fitting tribute which equally sit as a comment to contemporary film regarding its particular preference to ensure an audience’s focus through blurs, spotlighting, and so on.
In conclusion, this picture may be laden with minor misdemeanors that are technically inadequate when compared with the overall entertainment value of the product, but there is no denying that this is one of the best pictures of the year and another great addition to the ever impressive library of Tarantino films. The acting is marvelous and the direction is crisp, both of which are accompanied by a greatly entertaining soundtrack and some good old-fashioned blood and gore.
Verdict: A must-see visual spectacle which may not be Tarantino’s best ever offering but is certainly worth the price of admission and your near 3 hour investment. Watch out for the hilarious KKK scene.