Review – Django Unchained

For a writer and director who’s the unashamed king of the movie homage there really isn’t anyone else out there making films quite like Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – arguably his most outrageous film yet

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth feature is arguably his most outrageous yet and serves up a similar stylistic mash-up as his previous film Inglourious Basterds.

In that movie, he somehow got away with making a World War Two spaghetti western (complete with Ennio Morricone music) where a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Here, Tarantino uses a similar mould for his most fully realised and satisfying film since Jackie Brown, jettisoning the episodic structure that has been so familiar throughout his filmography.

Django Unchained is a western with extra spaghetti sauce and features a blaxploitation hero even cooler than Shaft. From the title, which directly references the 1966 spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), to the red-painted opening credits, music, ultra violence and theme of revenge (common to virtually all of Tarantino’s work), the film sends the homage-o-meter up to 11.

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

It’s also the writer-director’s most overtly political work to date, addressing the still thorny subject of slavery in a frank and often brutal way. Our hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who wins his freedom thanks to the intervention of Christoph Waltz’s German dentist-turned bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (it can’t be a coincidence that a character who abhors slavery shares his name with Dr Martin Luther King).

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

Schultz takes Django under his wing and trains him in the art of bounty hunting (“like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business”) and, in return for assisting him, Schultz agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave forced to work at the perversely named Candyland, owned by the despicable sadist and racial supremacist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting horribly blackened teeth).

Tarantino has never been one to shy away from throwing in the kitchen sink when it comes to on-screen violence. It’s a facet of his work that has attracted considerable consternation from critics and commentators throughout his career, but while he no doubt takes great pleasure in seeing how far he can go he also never lets you forget that violence and bullets hurt – a lot. When we see slaves being killed in the most vicious of ways at the hands of Candie, we’re left in no uncertain terms that this is no laughing matter.

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

That being said, just as the Nazis have it coming in Inglourious Basterds, there’s a certain gleeful satisfaction in seeing a black man administer justice of the most merciless kind to the racist white trash who have profited from and exploited the slave trade.

In the film’s most amusing scene , a group of proto-Ku Klux Klansmen led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) go in search of Schultz and Django, only to bicker among themselves because they can’t see properly out of their white hoods. It’s a nicely observed comment on the absurdity and cowardice of racism.

Tarantino also nods to classic John Ford westerns, framing his heroes against a series of expansive vistas, beautifully filmed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and conjures up a number of arresting images, most strikingly when blood splattters over pure white cotton on a plantation.

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

As verbose as Tarantino’s scripts are, his rich dialogue is a gift for the superlative cast he’s assembled here. Waltz almost steals the show as the kind-but-deadly Schultz, as memorable a screen presence as his diabolical Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds.

Foxx does a nice line in man-with-no-name quiet intensity (can you imagine what Will Smith, Tarantino’s original choice, would have done with the role?), while DiCaprio has a whale of a time tearing it up as the dapper southern aristocrat out of control in his own private fiefdom.

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

However, all pale in comparison to the quite brilliant Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s house slave who’s so servile he makes Uncle Tom look like a Black Panther. Hidden behind that frail, shuffling walk lies a truly abominable human being who, when he isn’t perched on Candie’s shoulder like a parrot repeating his every line, is punishing his fellow slaves and conspiring against them to get in his white master’s good books. It’s a very disturbing performance that only Tarantino and Jackson could have dreamt up.

What Tarantino still has some trouble with, however, is acting and he’s truly terrible as an Australian (!) slave driver. He can’t even resist affording himself the film’s most colourful death. This entire section is the only weak spot in the whole movie. There’s a natural end point before this, but Tarantino (who has previously admitted to not showing enough discipline when it comes to a script) gives himself another half an hour before he finally wraps things up, all be it in a pleasingly brutal way.

The thing you have to admire about Tarantino is that he’s a rock’n’roll director in the truest sense, a film geek who wants to share his love of cinema’s outer margins and with Django Unchained he hits it out of the park.

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18 comments

  1. cinenemablog · January 24, 2013

    I find D.U. to be his WORST work. But then again, my Tarantino choices are, as someone might consider, a bit weird.

    I did like your review, even if I don’t agree with the fact that it’s his most accomplished work. There is one point that I might have misunderstood:

    “That being said, just as the Nazis have it coming in Inglourious Basterds, there’s a certain gleeful satisfaction in seeing a black man administer justice of the most merciless kind to the racist white trash who have profited from and exploited the slave trade.”

    Isn’t this reverse racism or something along those lines?

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2013

      Thanks for your comments. While watching the film I readily admit Tarantino sucked me in and had me rooting for Django to kill the slave traders and Candie’s ranchers (all of whom the director paints as being truly awful human beings). The fact he’s black and on a personal mission of revenge makes it more provocative, yes, and this could certainly be argued as reverse racism (indeed a number of critics/commentators have). That being said, as with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino embraces the freedom of cinematic make believe to proffer an alternative view of history where a black man, freed of slavery, turns the tables on the people who have oppressed him and his wife. It’s ultimately a fantastical tale of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, one that I’ll readily admit sucked me in.

      Just to clarify, I stated it was his most accomplished work since Jackie Brown, which I consider to be his best film. There were parts of Kill Bill Volume 1 & 2 I loved and some I sighed at, while I thought Death Proof was a mess. He seems to be one of those directors who cinemagoers have wildly differing opinions over; I for one am somewhat of an Tarantino apologist, but I can totally understand how another would find his much of work off-putting. Again, thanks for your comments.

      • cinenemablog · January 24, 2013

        You’re points are very valid. However, to me this didn’t come across necessarily as a good vs. evil tale, more like a blaxploitation where Django sticks it to The Man, with all the questionable morals that entails.
        Jackie Brown is my favorite of his (you can check my list of QT movies by preference on my DU review, on my blog) and, strangely enough, Death Proof is my second favorite. That’s what I mean when I said that my list is…eclectic and all over the place.
        Make no mistake, I love his movies to bits but D.U. was a catastrophic disappointment – it did not entertain me and it had no SPARK. Hopefully he’ll be back to form on the next movie.

      • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2013

        I certainly wouldn’t disagree with you over the blaxploitation element; I make mention of it (admittedly briefly) in my review. That’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it; as I said Tarantino’s films go either way, you love them or you loathe them. I know people who loved Death Proof; it just didn’t do anything for me. Glad we agree that Jackie Brown (featuring blaxploitation queen Pam Grier of course) is his best film. I’ll go on over to your site and take a look at the QT article.

  2. r361n4 · January 24, 2013

    Rockstar Geek indeed 😀

  3. meeradarjiyr1 · January 24, 2013

    Great review!

  4. ckckred · January 24, 2013

    Nice review. QT never disappoints, and I really loved this one, despite some small flaws.

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2013

      Thanks very much. It’s not a perfect film and I still think QT has one more masterpiece in him, but I thought it was a hoot, all be it an over-extended one.

  5. thedavidryan · January 24, 2013

    Hey cracking article! I loved Django Unchained and you can see my review here http://thedavidryan.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/review-django-unchained/ let me know your thoughts 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2013

      Thanks very much! Appreciate the kind words. I shall certainly mosey on over to your review and you know what I think!

  6. CMrok93 · January 24, 2013

    One of, if not my favorite flick of the year because it’s filled to the core with fun, originaility, blood, guts, action, and a shit-load of humor. Doesn’t get any better than that, in my mind at least. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · January 24, 2013

      Cheers buddy. Absolutely agree, it has all the ingredients I love in a great night at the movies!

  7. The Politicoid · January 31, 2013

    Think I kind of disagree in general.. Check out my review on politicoid if you fancy hearing my view…

    • Three Rows Back · February 2, 2013

      That’s the beauty of films, they can generate 10 different opinions with 10 different people. Will definitely have a read of your review and let you know my thoughts.

  8. GaryLee828 · February 6, 2013

    Very well-written review 🙂

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