This is an extra long review than usual, so thanks for your patience if you get through it! Ultimate thanks go to MissNJ! for the edit.
Quentin Tarantino has never been shy about his love for the Spaghetti Western, nor his being influenced by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. A lot of that influence has crept into his previous films, including Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds. The director has also demonstrated his love for Blaxploitation-era cinema in the past with the likes of Jackie Brown. All these elements and genre styles make their way into his latest epic, Django Unchained. For all its expected whimsical dialogue, quirky visual nuances and clever edits, the film eventually becomes the closest thing to Tarantino (finally) producing his very own literal meld of Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western; and to view it in any other way would be a mistake, doing one of the most recognizable and popular American directors a disservice. There is no need to be confused, take overly seriously or, god forbid, be offended by Django. A film of two distinct halves, if you do make it through the often brisk but occasionally gruelling 165 minutes to the post credits visual quip, the main thing you should be, is entertained.
Tarantino has labelled his film a “Southern” – not a Western – which only adds to the uncanny ability he has to demonstrate, de-construct and mock almost any genre under the Texan sun. Not everybody enjoys every film he has made, but no-one is foolish enough to not realize that any new project he comes up with will be like nothing else, despite it resembling almost everything that’s come before it. The idea is that you think you know, but you just simply need to see a new Quentin Tarantino film to get it. You just must. Django fits into this category probably more than anything else he has done; you have to see it to believe it.
Assembling a cast of his usual sprawling and diverse calibre, the film starts with a typical grand opening for the director. Shackled slaves trudge along a distinctly Western backdrop, Luis Bacalov’s Django theme blaring and cartoon font declaring “A film by…” – Make no mistake, QT’s career is a tale of two halves just as this movie is; there is pre-Kill Bill and post-Kill Bill. That film saw him embrace what he loves making the most. Where previously his style was distinct, clever and modern, since then he has found a niche that seems to fit him better. Colourful, homage laden genre epics are his mantra now and will continue to be so. If Inglorious Basterds saw the director reach a new level of maturity and international diversity, Django complements it, but in a much more fun and comical way. The two films couldn’t be any further from each in terms of tone and atmosphere, but they exist together to prove how far Tarantino has come and will go until his (self-admitted) retirement at age 60-ish.
Our lead protagonist is bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz, played by current and future muse Christoph Waltz. Not totally unlike a moral, light-hearted version of the nasty Hans Landa he played and won an Oscar for in Basterds, Shultz is given mouth-wateringly funny diatribes, all delivered by the great actor with eloquence and confidence. Enter Shultz to our posse, outsmarting and shooting his way to acquiring Django from the slave owners. They set off, Shultz sharing and eventually teaching his trade through the winter to Django, whilst learning about the plight of the man along the way. This leads them to join forces at an attempt to rescue his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft, from an unknown plantation somewhere in Mississippi. Once we begin on the wife saving adventure, this is where the film begins to change from sophisticated slavery-themed talky, to ultra-violent Blaxploitation Wild Bunch territory. The transition is smooth and not chaptered as in past films, so the line is not literal, more tonally and simply a move to action (and gore) orientated terrain. The action in the final half hour is exhilarating, and Tarantino proves a deft hand at gun slinging set pieces with the best of them.
Jamie Foxx, as our titular hero, is a minor revelation. Minor in that Django the character is almost one note, and it is not until the blood soaked intense second half of the film that you truly see Django become what Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie calls him, that “one in ten thousand nigger”. Foxx is a perfect fit, so much so that when you look at the short-list of African American actors QT was considering, it seems like no decision at all. His first choice of Will Smith would have been a disaster, in my opinion. Foxx has a swagger and toughness in just the right balance for Django. Smith just doesn’t have that kind of screen presence.
Of that infamous “N” word, it does surprise me that in 2013, context still seems to only be applied when it wants to be with art. Tarantino has often needed to defend his use of the word (which has been frequent in a few of his films) and while I think this review space is not the place to delve into it, in Django, I fear context for some has truly been ignored. Apparently it is used over a hundred times here, and occasionally it does feel as though QT is taking the piss, using it to punctuate a moment or scene that perhaps was overkill, but alas, as I mentioned earlier, Django shouldn’t offend. The violence may be hard to stomach for some, but it terms of subject matter and language, even Calvin Candie tells us “adult supervision may be required”. Supervision can be read as perhaps, everyone just chill the fuck out, it’s a movie. A cartoonish, violent, comedic Western, set during a deplorable period of history in the South, should be taken with a grain of salt. There IS a level of brutality and sadism in Django, but only a fool would agree that it is born from any acute racism from its creators.
Much of the masochistic and sadistic elements that undeniably do populate the film are born from our main antagonist, who appears halfway through the adventure, Calvin Candie; a lover and entrepreneur of “Mandingo” fighters and owner of the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi, dubbed “Candyland”. Candie is a charming, but monstrously racist and brutal man. DiCaprio creates possibly QT’s most overtly disturbing character to date. As a fan of the actor, it was quite impressive to see him embrace such a horrible person to the point of utter conviction; one scene in particular involving a skull, a discussion of phrenology and a hammer is quite mesmerizing. If anything, and like Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in Basterds before it, Candie may prove to be too much of a caricature distraction on repeat viewings, but as it stands, DiCaprio gives us a charming, cartoonish villain that is truly memorable. Of course, all this intensity is leavened often by the many back-and-forths he has with Samuel L. Jackson’s 79 year old “Uncle Tom” house slave, Stephen. Jackson hasn’t been this entertaining and funny in an age. The humour in Django is of the laugh-out-loud variety, sometimes bordering on slapstick, and is without question the director’s funniest film ever. One of the clear influences feels like Mel Brooks, as one scene involving a gang of dunder-headed KKK members joyfully invokes Blazing Saddles, not to mention Broomhilda Von Shaft is awfully close to Lili Von Shtupp.
So, Django Unchained is many things. As far as pigeon-holing it to a genre, you’d have to be happy with that being a list as opposed to a specific. Comedy, action, drama and Western are all covered, as well as Tarantino’s penchant for a good revenge story (unsurprisingly, this is what Django is at heart) and let’s face it, it makes a point of the era in a way that would make it a period piece too, though it seems it is possibly too raw for some in that regard. Be warned, those who are sensitive to seeing (and being made light of) the human condition in 1858. This is no Ken Burns essay, but the film is set in a racist period of time, with a racist population; It pulls no punches and even embellishes this for comedic affect, but in turn does not make the film or its writer/director racist. On a final note, technically this is impressive, but besides the excellent music and use of it, the absence of QT’s long-time collaborating editor, the late Sally Menke, is unfortunately noticeable. The bloody shoot outs are filmed gloriously, if maybe a little too voyeuristic as each bullet is reloaded with rocket-like sound effects as they puncture flesh. The gallons of blood used would be an interesting statistic. This goes down as the director’s most violent, funny, bizarre, disturbing and surreal work to date that still doesn’t reach the bar he set himself on Inglorious Basterds. But for a good time, you couldn’t do much better than Django Unchained.