Synopsis: With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
When Django Unchained came out I had a decision to make; spend £15 going to watch it at the cinema; or wait for the hype to die down. Being January money was tight. Spare time more so. I had a restricted amount of movies I knew I could fit in during it’s theatrical run. Dilemma struck.
Now, in 2003 when faced with this same issue of money and time for Kill Bill Vol 1, there was no real dilemma. I went, I saw it, I enjoyed it immensely, it was everything I had hoped for. Then the next 10 years of Tarantino happened. Kill Bill Vol 2 was a mess brought about by QT’s own ever expanding ego. Death Proof was a dull self indulgent pastiche of Tarantino doing an impression of himself doing a grindhouse throwback. Inglourious Basterds, owing to the previous, kind of passed me by. And more importantly I discovered countless other directors during that time who made more interesting work.
So with that in mind I let the Django hype pass me by and waited a few months to watch it in isolation from the Oscar buzz and people telling me it was his return to form. Which, having now watched it, I can to some degree agree with. But it is still riddled with problems that seem spawned from QT’s unbridled ego. He is a perfect example of someone believing their own hype.
For those unaware, Django Unchained is QT’s long awaited Western (although he calls it his Southern, due to it’s taking place largely in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi) and a nod to the Spaghetti Western series starting with Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) starring Franco Nero. Here, Django is a freed slave (Jamie Foxx), liberated by Dr Schultz, a passing German Dentist/Bounty Hunter (Christoph Waltz) in order to help him track down the wanted men who captured him. In doing so the two men strike up a friendship and Dr Shultz agrees to help Django find and buy his wife’s freedom from Southern slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio).
Most Western’s tend to be stories of revenge or redemption. As such, Kill Bill was arguably Tarantino’s first Western, albeit wrapped in his more overt homage to 1970’s Asian cinema. Unchained doesn’t feel like new or exciting territory for QT. It is though a lot of fun to see him play with the themes, motifs and style of the 1960’s and early 70’s Spaghetti’s that evidently had such an impact on him. In fact the opening credit sequence could easily pass for 40 years old with it’s low colour palette and super quick zooms. The movie is splattered with almost as many visual references to Sergio Leone & co as it is blood.
The quality of the central performances definitely felt like they elevated certain elements of Tarantino’s script that may have been lacking. Christoph Waltz in particular stole the first half of the movie. He balanced his the wit, charm and humanity that the character demanded to diffuse the nasty business at hand. Jamie Foxx comes into his own after the first hour, but that is more to do with the fact he is not required to do a huge amount except look pissed off and scared in the most part. Only when Django is no longer Django as they reach Candi Land is he allowed to flourish. But when he does get to seek his revenge it is with the veracity and venom of anything the Bride dished out during her rampage.
It was also fun to see Leo Di Caprio having fun with the villainous role, although 90% of the people in the film are villainous really either through overt or passive racism and brutality. None more so really than Samuel L Jackson’s odd character. He provides a counter view from someone who can only be described as having some weird Stockholm Syndrome. It felt jarring though that in the context of the situation someone of his colour, as much as he may be well loved by his “Master” would be allowed the kind of latitude he was. That said, he Jackson played him as a perfect puppet master.
Before I wrap this up I feel I should probably comment on the use of THAT word. It’s not something I am going to spend much time on. I do not believe I am socially or academically placed to add anything to a discussion had by many people much smarter and better informed than me. I will say this though; it is used a lot. To say it is used gratuitously though seems like misplaced anxiety. In the context of the story, and the time, that word would have been used liberally and often in conversation to describe, what were to many people, commodities. It didn’t feel glorified or normalised. All I can say is that while the use of the word made me uncomfortable, it would have been weird not to hear it used given the situation. That’s just one opinion. Others are available.
Tarantino has always been known for his bursts of hyper violence, some of which is genuinely comical. Everyone remembers Travolta’s speed bump gun accident in Pulp Fiction. Similarly in Kill Bill, particularly Vol 1, he practically paints the screen with blood at times. None more so than in the Yakuza nightclub where limbs are sliced and severed with consummate ease by The Bride’s wandering blade. In Django he again seems to have accounted for 40% of the films budget being on corn syrup and red food dye. The strange thing is the way people are dispatched and the resulting splatter is almost Manga in how exaggerated it is. No spoiler but a prime example is the result of a close quarters rifle shot in the first 5 minutes. There is also an almost “self homage” to the aforementioned Kill Bill scene in the final third where I got the sense QT could restrain himself no more. It is an onslaught which, with it’s slow motion balletic gun play, felt like John Woo was asked to guest direct that segment. All it was missing was a lot of doves flying around.
The action makes up for the pace and dialogue, both of which needed a stronger hand. The problem with Tarantino is he has no idea how to edit. Actually, no that’s not true. He does know, he just doesn’t know how to cut his own stuff. I get the sense that his ego won’t allow him to be ruthless with his own material. The first 45 minutes zipped along. The resulting 2 hours though could have been cut down to 1. There were scenes that you were waiting to end, thinking “ok well that is at least 800 word too many” (I know, hypocritical. I don’t get paid millions of dollars for this though). There was also one particular scene which was both one of the best in the movie and also the most oddly misfitting. It involved a Klan mob riding to lynch Django and Dr Schultz before stopping to have a long, and frankly hilarious, discussion about their hats. It was one of the funniest things I have seen in any Tarantino movie, and felt completely out of place. I can only imagine in the editing suite QT was like “yeah but it’s so good I can’t take it out”. Someone needs to tell him “no”. I don’t think enough people know how to do that.
He also needs to learn how to end a movie. Like Kill Bill 2 it should have stopped 20 minutes before the end (again, hypocritical, I get it). And someone please PLEASE tell him he can’t act. He has the single worst cameo of all the cameos in Django. He even tries to put on an Aussie accent which is the worst. What a narcissist.
All that in to account though, this is his best work I have seen (I can’t comment on Inglorious) since Kill Bill Vol 1, but a long way off the quality of his first four movies (Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and True Romance which he wrote). Hopefully though it is a sign he is back on track. I know he likes to do homages to his favourite styles. Next time I want to see him do an homage to a 90 minute film.
Conclusion: His best work in 10 years but still a long way from his early work. Should have been 45 minutes shorter but was still enjoyable.
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino – enough said
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Di Caprio, Samuel L Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins
- Will Smith, Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Tyrese Gibson were all considered for the role of Django. Quentin Tarantino actually wrote the role with Smith in mind, and Smith’s agents and manager wanted him to accept it, but Smith ultimately decided to pass. Tarantino then offered the part to Jamie Foxx, who accepted.
- While filming on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Quentin Tarantino rented out a local movie theater to show samurai and Western movies from his own personal collection.
- This is the second time Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington have portrayed a married couple. The two previously starred as Ray Charles and Della Bea Robinson in Ray.