Up for five Academy Awards this year, and already a Golden Globe in the bag for supporting actor Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained really is playing the underdog game well and becoming a strong force to be reckoned with. With its bold slavery storyline, homage to Spaghetti Westerns and signature Tarantino style, this film see’s its director assemble a stellar cast and return to his Pulp Fiction best.
The film is essentially split into two stories. The first, being the uniting and unlikely friendship between a German Bounty Hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and slave turned bounty hunter Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx). The second, being the quest to find Django’s slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is being held by a brutal plantation owner in Mississippi.
From the outset, Tarantino puts his personal spin on this big issue of slavery and plants it in the Deep South in an exciting modern Western format. Having heard some time ago about Tarantino’s plans to make this movie, I felt it was an interesting and exciting move, but with unpredictability from audiences, Django Unchained was never going to sit in the middle of people’s opinions. But I am pleased to report that in my book, it is being hailed more as a triumph with controversy rather than a failed attempt.
The many great things about this film begin with the performances. Christoph Waltz shone so brilliantly in Inglorious Bastards and he continues his ‘Best Supporting‘ competition campaign in this film. From start to finish he embodies the unassuming Dr. King Schultz with a jolly European elegance that you can’t help but find endearing, even when at his most violent and unforgiving. Jamie Foxx is perfect casting as the titular character, and I doubt there has ever been a remorseless revenge hero quite so straight faced as he is throughout this film – when he finally cracks a satisfied smile in the end scene the relief is welcomed with open arms. Letting Schultz do the majority of the talking on his behalf so he can play the sultry side-kick, allows this duo to work together in harmony as both a ruthless partnership in the first half and with genuine comradery in the second.
In addition to these drivers of the narrative, Leonardo Di Caprio plays so against type in this film it’s genius. Girls who grew up falling in love with him in Baz Luhrmanns’ Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t, after watching this film, entertain being in the same plantation let alone the same room with his repugnant, baby-faced, spoilt and menacing Calvin J. Candie. This role shows DiCaprio switch from upper classed Southern-drawl charmer to manipulating and loathed sadist – a role every actor would have desired but few would have been able to accomplish quite in this way. Just as Django and Schultz have an unlikely partnership, so does Calvin Candie and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the cheeky Head of the Household at Candyland who demonstrates that not all slaves are fighting for the same cause necessarily, and that this is a world where even the slightest bit of privilege may skew the utilitarian factor from his mindset. Throughout the upcoming awards season, one can only wish that there would have been room for more nominations for supporting cast members as they were all so brilliantly portrayed.
In terms of directing duties, what Tarantino does brilliantly here, is provide not only a great epic American Western with fantastically well thought out characters and intriguing plotlines, but he also shows both the best and very worst of the human spirit – Christoph Waltz’s democratic Dr Schultz, who cared not for the colour of the skin but only the good of the job, and Calvin Candie’s degrading abuse of his slaves show the two extremes here very cleverly. Tarantino also manages to balance the humour, making us laugh at the most absurd scenes and allowing audiences to question and second-guess themselves after viewing the film – the Klu Klux Klan scenario is a good example of this type of humour, and is one of the best scenes of the whole film.
So what is bad about this film? Well, firstly it’s long, just how long is one of the many jaw-dropping moments presented when you check your watch as you peel yourself out of your seat once the lights go up. But actually, upon reflection, you’ll find it hard to discover many wasted minutes. Every part of the dialogue is carefully constructed and thought out, and although there are slower parts, they are necessary to provide a pathway towards the more climactic moments.
Secondly, it’s violent, but what did you expect? It is Tarantino after all, and if you learned anything from Kill Bill, it’s that Tarantino likes adding in the gore element – but in Django Unchained, you wont see any group slaughter scenes in black and white to shade the violence. However, like in some of his earlier films, the end shoot out is almost so grotesque that you don’t wince when watching it, as it doesn’t evoke that kind of reaction because it is so expected of Tarantino. Equally, the more brutal parts are implied rather than shown in full i.e.: the slave and the dogs, so you are shocked by the horror of it happening but not by seeing it on screen. But what we must remember is that this isn’t just Tarantino going for a shock factor joy ride with his film making, in fact, Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s indulged in extreme violence, and to pay proper homage to that era Tarantino is bringing some of that cinematic history to the modern stage.
Finally, the extended use of the ‘N-word’ has been steeped in controversy, however when you’re not seeing slaves pulled apart by each other in a death match or set on by dogs it’s a necessary reminder of the horrors of slavery and not a tip toeing premise to hide behind. As with the rest of Tarantino’s portfolio of work, if he’s going to tackle a topic be it Nazi Germany or the Deep South, he does it full throttle.
So should you go watch this film? For Tarantino fans this is a must, when questions started to arise about this director through his Grindhouse homage phase that didn’t quite hit the mark, rest assured that he has steadily been building up to this crescendo, lets hope his future projects maintain this level of courage and craft.