Django Unchained Review
by Daniel Rester
Just in time for the holidays is Django Unchained, a lively bitch slap to the awards season and the various “I really want an Oscar”-type films that are out right now. This film has picked up its own steam in the awards runs, yet it isn’t like any of its contenders. That’s because it is a Quentin Tarantino movie, and that means anything goes. And yes, I mean anything. This is a film that takes place during the slavery era, yet contains such things as rap music in the soundtrack and a style of fighting that Tarantino uses to reference a past spaghetti western film (Mandingo). So, yes, this is full-on Tarantino, filled with his usual trademarks. That means the haters will probably still hate, and the fans will likely adore. I adored it.
Unchained takes place in southern America in 1858, two years before the Civil War. The film opens with Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave being transported by foot to a new plantation. A bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) then sets Django free. He needs Django to identify three men he has been searching for so that he can kill them and collect the bounty for their bodies. After a turn of events, Shultz becomes a sort-of mentor to Django, and the two set out as partners in the business. Eventually they arrive in Mississippi, where Django wants to free his enslaved wife from the clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino has always played around with spaghetti western elements in his past films, but here the genre is front and center. Such genre elements include large red lettering for the titles, quick zooms onto faces, some Ennio Morricone music, and over-the-top shootouts; there is even a nice cameo for fans of the original Django film, which inspired parts of this film. The usual Tarantino elements are obviously in here too. This includes the colorful characters, flavorful dialogue, pop-culture references (including a nice nod to The Three Musketeers), and a whole lot of bloody and excessive violence. And the film obviously draws on the Blaxploitation genre as well, with Django as a badass revenge-seeker.
New here for Tarantino is the theme of slavery. This is a touchy subject, but somehow Tarantino manages to make it work in his court. Among all of the ridiculous pieces that mix into Unchained, Tarantino never loses sight that the slavery era in America was a terrible thing. While the movie is often hilarious and wildly entertaining, it is also unflinching and seemingly realistic in the way it shows how many slaves were treated, from whippings to being attacked by dogs. Such moments show the mature Tarantino who has something to say. The way that this movie manages to blend its anti-slavery ideas with all of the other ingredients is remarkable, as it might not have worked in a lesser director’s hands. Some may think that such a blending may be disrespectful and unrealistic to the era, but I don’t think so. I believe that Tarantino has managed to give his viewers the entertainment they expect while also being bold enough to address an important part of history at the same time. Do we really expect him to switch away from his usual style? No. So at least he has the balls to make a film that addresses slavery, which many directors don’t have the guts to do.
As expected, the cast here is excellent. Foxx is a completely solid lead as Django, giving the character a good representation of the arc from slave to gunslinger. The movie also contains enjoyable supporting performances by such actors as Kerry Washington (as Django’s wife), Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, and Jonah Hill. But the three standouts in the whole thing are Waltz, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is very appealing and witty as Shultz, masterful with his timing of dialogue and juggling of multiple languages (he also speaks German). DiCaprio is the most interesting in the picture, though, as we’ve never seen him do a role like this before. He succeeds admirably. The actor is both charming and terrifying as Candie (what a name), and alternately quietly and outwardly intense. This performance is really a reminder of why the actor is one of the more respected of his generation. And finally there is Jackson, a Tarantino regular. His character, Stephen, is almost as equally despicable as Candie. Stephen is the lead slave in Candie’s house, and almost like a puppet master to Candie at times. Jackson is hilarious and compelling as this man, bringing with him his trademark glares.
Like with Tarantino’s past work, Unchained is overlong. All of the writing and direction here is top-notch (though Tarantino uses a few too many flashbacks at times), but some scenes could definitely have been trimmed down a bit. This is especially true of the second half of the film, which has the pace slow down considerably. Such pacing issues make the film feel a little off at times. Everything else (for me) was aces though (including some amazing cinematography and intriguing music choices), and outweighs this problem for me.
I could understand if some critics don’t take the pacing issue so lightly, though. Many will also not take to the spaghetti western/Blaxploitation/anti-slavery/Tarantino mixture as well. But as a Tarantino fan, it worked for me. It’s extremely violent and completely off-the-wall, but also audacious for tackling such a subject – and that’s what I loved about it.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).