Django Unchained Movie Review – An homage to the 1966 Italian spaghetti western ‘Django‘ starring Franco Nero, Quentin Tarantino presents his bloody and offbeat addition to the western genre. In the original ‘Django‘, the hero is a mysterious (white) man who drags an even more mysterious coffin into a town caught in a violent struggle between the KKK and Mexican bandits. A man obsessed with seeking vengeance, Django soon finds himself at the heart of the conflict. Though the plots of ‘Django‘ and Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained‘ differ in content and scenario, the general focus is the same – merciless vengeance. And for anyone familiar with Tarantino’s ‘no holds barred’ approach to storytelling, it’s no surprise that this iteration to the Django character pushes nearly all cinematic limits.
The film stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a black slave, and Cristoph Waltz as his bounty hunting mentor, Dr. King Shultz. Beginning with a ‘legal’ purchase of Django from his current slave owners, Shultz aims to partner with Django in locating the Brittle Brothers; wanted fugitives with whom Django is familiar. A deal is struck between the two men that will result in Django’s freedom: find the fugitives, collect the bounty on their heads, and Django becomes a free man afterward. Traveling through many of the southern states in 1858 (before the Civil War) however, Django’s freedom would find little respect amongst the locals. The bounty hunting duo eventually decides to locate and rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who has since been purchased by a particularly ruthless plantation owner that fancies betting on the sport of ‘mandingo fighting’, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). What ensues is an operatic exchange of wit, violence, and ‘southern hospitality’ that’s unpredictable to the very end.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way: ‘Django Unchained’ is a Tarantino spaghetti western. That, in itself, is like a cinematic double-whamy that’s anything but politically correct. If you don’t appreciate this specific director’s style, I’d suggest staying far away from this film… because it is quintessential Tarantino. If one was to look for a comparison within his filmography, ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (2009 – another homage film) utilized a similar style of storytelling – a reworking of historical period genres, brought to life through carefully crafted characters placed into seemingly improbable situations. Both films are unique in that a dark sense of underlying wit and ironic respect for a hated foe uncomfortably reduces the seriousness of political and social situations that today are considered very serious indeed. More to the point, this is a movie about slavery and the horrible acts done unto African slaves… but you’ll find yourself laughing almost hysterically when Django departs those who have done him wrong. It’s something of a paradox; but then, this is Quentin Tarantino.
‘Django Unchained’ jumps right into the action and humorous exchanges of wit from Dr. Shultz, a marvelous conversationalist. Unsurprisingly, Shultz is played by Cristoph Waltz, who was applauded for a similarly dialogue-driven role in ‘Inglorious Basterds’. Every interaction that Shultz and Django have with various groups along their journey is unique. And hilariously so. The characters are well-written. You truly want to hate the slack-jawed hillbillies, the wealthy and socially respected plantation owners, the ruthless slave enforcers… and then there’s Calvin Candie’s entrusted black slaver, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who presides as a kind of loyal watchdog over the plantation aptly name ‘Candie Land’. Much of Stephen’s dialogue and intent is delivered through Jackson’s demeanor and piercing glare. An interesting dual-sidedness of this character is explored when Stephen sits down with Candie for a very frank discussion where the tables turn for only a brief few minutes. And there’s Django; who, despite not having the most intricate or interesting dialogue in the film, you want more than anything to succeed in saving his beautiful wife.
This is not for the faint of heart, easily offended or otherwise. The so-called ‘N word’ is used so often that one could feel a bit desensitized to it by the time the credits role across the screen. The imagery of slavery is direct and unforgiving, displaying the crudeness and unimaginable pain endured. ‘Mandingo fighting’ (much like a dog fight) is brutal and remains the theme throughout the film as Django poses as a kind of expert on the fight-til-death sport in order to infiltrate the enemy. In this sense, Django is extremely conflicted as he must seem unfazed by the mistreatment of the slaves around him. There are even a couple instances where lead actors seemingly bare all in portrayals of despicable forms of torture. DiCaprio clearly enjoys playing his evil character, reveling in a deeply curious role that has everyone wondering where his mysterious intentions and self-proclaimed knowledge will lead the story.
The 165 minutes that make up this film flow beautifully in this blood opera dedicated to the violent spaghetti westerns of yesteryear. ‘Tarantio-esque’ to the very end, scenes that last longer than in conventional films are carried through with humorous banter that you simply want to carry on for hours. One example is an exchange of words between a group of horse-riding men with white sheets over their heads who decide that the sheets were not ‘up to par’. A light-hearted argument continues for several minutes, but never feels drawn out or unnecessary. The soundtrack is perfect, putting to good use several musical genres ranging from rap to country to classic folk rock. And the music is befitting in every scene – especially the same theme music used in the original ‘Django’ film from half a century ago. The overuse of ‘zoom shots’ is not only a Tarantino trademark and gentle poke at modern cinematography, it also harkens back to the days when western films ruled… and there’s no shortage of dramatic hero shots in this film.
Most chapters are strong and filled with fresh material, with the exception of only a few scenes. One of the weaker, unfortunately, actually involves Tarantino’s cameo in the film. But not to worry, the original dialogue and sheer theatrical appeal of ‘Django Unchained’ as a whole will place this project among the rankings as a Tarantino ‘classic’. Another area that remains refreshingly unpredictable, is knowing who will die – not to mention when and how. Tarantino has a habit of killing off nearly all main characters in his films… and they’re usually some of our favorite characters, having appealed to the audience in some way, by the time they meet an untimely demise. One may also notice that, despite the serious nature of their character’s actions and mentality, it’s very apparent that these actors truly enjoyed working on a film such as this – they were having fun. So be entertained by Tarantino’s latest masterpiece and pay heed to a style of filmmaking that nobody else can seem to duplicate.