Django Unchained Review By Adam
Quentin Tarantino is a mad man. Loud, obnoxious and terrifyingly egotistical, QT is a high-functioning lunatic who happens to make films. Thankfully for him, they are really, really, good fucking films. QT has been forgiven for a lifetime of bloated PR excess for the simple reason that he is (as he is more than happy to tell you) a master filmmaker. Both his mental state and his talent are readily apparent in his latest film Django Unchained, a ripsnorting, taboo-smashing Western that might just be the purest melding of material and aesthetic in Tarantino’s whole filmography. Just like the man himself, Django is brash, abrasive, indulgent, completely unapologetic and, above all, entertaining as hell.
Set in 1858 in the antebellum era of the Deep South, Django follows a freed slave, the titular Django (Jaime Foxx), and a wildly articulate bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Chistoph Waltz). After joining forces, the pair begin to rid the Old West of racist scumbags, one at a time. After fortifying their friendship in blood, the duo set out to rescue Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the reptilian plantation owner, Francophile and Mandingo fighting enthusiast Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Straight from its bold, emblazoned titles and Elvis Pressley styled theme song, Django lets us know that it is operating in a heightened universe. Just like his previous film (the barmy Inglorious Basterds), Django finds Tarantino less interested in the meaningful exploration of historical atrocities and more in the entertainment level that its sandbox can afford him. He wants us to pump our fists when someone is obliterated on screen and what better way to achieve that than have our antagonists be proponents of the flesh trade- hell, it worked for him with the Nazis. One of the recurring motifs of QT’s work is revenge (Marsellus Wallace, Beatrix Kiddo, Hugo Stiglitz et al) and here that notion is in full swing. The other main components of Tarantino’s work — over-intellectualized exchanges, reverence to cult films and gleeful brutality — are all pushed into overdrive in Django.
Despite its rampant adherence to the expected, Django has a few things that set it apart from standard Tarantino fare. Firstly, Django is the most linear of all of Tarantino’s films. With the exception of a few miniscule flashbacks, Django never breaks its constant forward momentum. Also of note is the dynamic at the heart of Django, at its core this is a buddy film; not since Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent has Tarantino relished in the interplay between two comrades. The biggest diversion from Tarantino’s usual style is the uncommon inclusion of a romantic subplot. Almost all of Tarantino’s films are devoid of romantic soft touches and here he makes a conscientious effort to demonstrate that Django is not only a man after violent reprisals (though he is damn good at that) but he is fighting for his future as well.
Due to its recurring themes — violent revenge, selfless duty and unwavering virtue — the Western is often one of cinema’s most dour genres. While these notions don’t often lead to gut-busting laughs, Django is often a hoot. Through irreverent humour and a healthy dose of the ridiculous, Tarantino often elicits howls of laughter. It may turn off those looking for a serious exploration of slavery, but Django’s humour helps elevate its entertainment level through the roof. It would seem that this film’s irreverence isn’t a case of didn’t-try-can’t-fail dismissiveness, but rather something more innocuous: it’s simply the world interpreted through Tarantino’s boisterous perspective. To rally against this film seems overly conservative and even sanctimonious, as I can’t imagine anyone actual leaving the cinema during Django, as it’s just too damn entertaining. There are winces galore located in Django but none of them are stimulated by insensitivity on Tarantino’s behalf.
Like in all of Tarantino’s previous films, the acting in Django is sublime, with one notable exception: the man himself. Tarantino’s cameo — as an Australian, no less — is bona fide abhorrent, but thankfully he is Django’s only weak link. Tarantino even has the gall to make his big scene utterly plot dependent; he couldn’t cut himself from the film even if he wanted to. Jaime Foxx bides his time with the titular Django; it is a slow burn performance that ends in the volcanic. He starts off all wide-eyed and whispers, but by the end he is a stone-cold merchant of death. Tarantino is on the record as wanting to make an empowering hero for African Americans: he has wholeheartedly succeeded. Despite receiving second billing, Django is Christoph Waltz’s film. A brilliant companion piece to his Oscar winning turn as Col. Hans Landa in Basterds, Waltz’s Dr King Shultz is a brilliant cinematic creation. Tarantino has crafted a vivid blueprint on paper, but Waltz breathes true life into Shultz, interpreting and delivering his (often overwritten) lines in a completely believable and idiosyncratic way. A lesser performer would drown in Tarantino’s rapid-fire prose, but Waltz relishes in it. Leonardo DiCaprio takes a break from box office world domination to play the reprehensible Calvin Candie. Employing the ‘Al Pacino high- decibel school of acting’ DiCaprio often makes brave choices in the role, and proves that he is just as interested in the craft of acting as he is in the financial viability of his films. As transformative as DiCaprio is, he is upstaged by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is often paid millions of dollars to play himself, which is fine, as he is one of the most charismatic motherfuckers alive, but here he does some actual character work and the results are phenomenal. Jackson’s manservant, Stephen, may just be the funniest (and most evil) thing in Django, and that is saying a hell of a lot.
My only complaints with Django pertain to its length. Tarantino’s sprawling plot more than warrants the film’s 165 minute running time, but certain scenes could have been slightly tightened up. Tarantino is in love with own dialogue and myth building skills (and so he should be), but the film sometimes slips from being informative and segues into indulgent exposition. The third act is also slightly problematic. After bringing the story to a suitably violent climax, Tarantino offers up yet another third act. My gripe with this is minor, as this ‘bonus round’ is full of violence and bravado but it does extend an already long film by another 30 minutes.
The last few years have offered up a handful of classic Westerns (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition) but no one has had this much fun in the genre since 1974’s Blazing Saddles. While Django is undoubtebly a Western, it is also doubly a Tarantino joint, and as such should be enjoyed with a healthy dose of irony (and mind-altering substances).