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Django Unchained

For a film that I didn't fall madly in love with this certainly inspired quite the lengthy review.


Year of release

Directed by
Quentin Tarantino

Written by
Quentin Tarantino

Jamie Foxx
Christoph Waltz
Leonardo Di Caprio
Samuel L. Jackson
Kerry Washington
Don Johnson

Django Unchained


Plot - Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. The unorthodox Schultz acquires Django with a promise to free him upon the capture of the Brittles - dead or alive. Success leads Schultz to free Django, though the two men choose not to go their separate ways. Instead, Schultz seeks out the South's most wanted criminals with Django by his side. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago.

As I've laid out several times on the forum I'm not as enamoured with the work of Quentin Tarantino as the majority of people seem to be. I think he undoubtedly has a lot of talent but too often his ego gets in the way in my opinion. He started his career by directing two excellent films in the form of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and contributing to another with True Romance. Since then however I'm of the opinion that it's been a case of diminishing returns as far as his work goes, with QT delivering films that are increasingly bloated and narcissistic. For about the first hour of Django Unchained however I felt that Tarantino may be on his way to delivering his best and most entertaining film since he exploded on to the scene in such startling fashion. It was funny, it was entertaining and it had a lot more energy and life about it than many of his more recent efforts. It was a lively and breezy opening which moved along at a fair clip, certainly compared to a typical Tarantino film which never seems to be in much of a rush. The odd couple, buddy-like relationship that develops between Schultz and Django is very entertaining, and I actually found the film to be very funny; and not just in the usual Tarantino fashion of eliciting laughs out of violence and very dark comedy. It's really quite playful, verging on slapstick stuff on occasion as embodied by the flabbergasted reactions of people to seeing a 'n**ger on a horse', the bobbing tooth on top of Schultz's carriage, Django's flamboyant blue outfit and the fact that Schultz's horse, Fritz, bows whenever he is introduced. However the absolute highlight in terms of humour would have to be the brilliant scene depicting the costume woes that the Ku Klux Klan are experiencing with their new hoods. I'll admit that I'm perhaps being a bit of a hypocrite on this as it's usually the type of unnecessary scene that offers nothing to the story that I would criticise Tarantino for. But I just found it damn amusing.

So it was all looking very promising for that first act. And then my early enthusiasm started to slip away with the introduction of Leonardo Di Caprio's Calvin Candie. Now I'm not saying that it was through any fault of Di Caprio himself, I actually thought he did a very nice job. It's just that all of a sudden Tarantino seemed to fall back in to his old ways which have irritated me in films like Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. In that first hour I felt that Django was a much more lively and fluid film, aided by taut storytelling and tighter editing that resulted in shorter scenes. When Django and Schultz arrive at Candyland however Tarantino's ego seems to kick back in to play. I always get the feeling that he is just so proud of his creations, that he finds his characters and dialogue so precious that he can't bear to leave any of it on the cutting room floor even if it would be to the benefit of the film. I found that during this long stretch the film fell into a real lull. Scenes become unnecessarily overlong, resulting in a film that I feel is way too long as it approaches a running time of three hours. As I feel has been the case with many of his films I think there might be a really great film hiding in here that gets suffocated under its length. In this instance I think there could be an excellent two hour film here, but instead we are given a merely very good two and half hour plus film.

The second act wasn't a complete loss however, there are still some real treats to be found in there. Chief amongst them are some very intriguing characters that Tarantino created. Calvin Candie is a slave trader and the owner of the Candyland plantation. He seems like a man with great aspirations of class and a high standing but he doesn't really seem to have the required intelligence to accomplish it. This is highlighted in the fact that he is enamoured with France and its people, and likes to be referred to as Monsieur Candie, but he doesn't actually speak French and an attempt to converse with him in the language would embarrass him. He doesn't appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed, relying very heavily on Stephen (his house slave). He is taken in by the ruse perpetrated by Schultz and Django, not seeing through it until Stephen points it out to him. This despite a few clear warning signs that he doesn't take heed of. One thing I found really interesting about his character was his attitude towards black individuals. There were numerous occasions where Django says something that you think is going to provoke an angry reaction from Candie, but instead he seems intrigued and even entertained with him 'stepping beyond his limitations' as a black man. It's a similar case with Stephen who speaks in quite a confrontational and 'uppity' manner to Candie at times, a manner that you imagine will result in a whipping, but Candie not only tolerates it but appreciates it. Despite his detestable standing as a slave trader, Calvin Candie actually seems a very charming and affable man, and even worryingly likeable. He sort of reminded me of Hitler in a way. I've heard it said that one way he was able to convince so many people to commit such inhumane acts was that he was a very charismatic individual. There was even a documentary on TV here in the UK quite recently called “The Dark Charisma of Hitler” I think it was. And yet side by side with this engaging side to his character is a much darker streak of hatred and violence that Di Caprio unleashes. It may sound strange given his standing as a slave trader and a plantation owner but for much of the time I didn't feel that his emotions were inspired so much by actual racism as much as a sense of ownership. When the slaves disobey or try to escape him I didn't always feel that he was angered that 'a black' would do this, so much as someone he owned would. I mentioned Candie's house slave Stephen there and he is the other character I found very fascinating. In many ways I actually found his character even more detestable than Candie; you expect it from someone like Candie but for Stephen to co-operate feels like such a betrayal of his race. He also turns out to be a very sly, cunning individual. At the end when confronted by Django he throws down the cane he has been using, his limp disappears and even his demeanour changes from his rather jokey, simple-minded character to a much more intense and apparently intelligent man. This throws up a couple of interesting theories; perhaps he has faked his injury to escape from mandingo fighting or working in the fields, perhaps the injury and his more jovial manner were all an act to obtain work in the house.

Film Trivia Snippets - There were a number of actors who were initially cast that later had to drop out. Both Sacha Baron Cohen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were cast before having to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. The characters they were supposed to play were subsequently removed. And then in regards to Ace Speck it was a bit of a revolving door situation. Originally Kevin Costner was cast in the role but dropped out to scheduling conflicts. He was then replaced by Kurt Russell who himself then had to drop out. /// Just by looking at the cast list you can see for yourself it's an impressive ensemble. But if you want some kind of proof, how about the fact that the film features seven actors who have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Jonah Hill, Russ Tamblyn and Bruce Dern all earned a nomination in that category. Although Waltz was the only one to be victorious, winning for Ingluorious Basterds. /// When it came to the character of Django a whole host of people were considered for the role including Will Smith, Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, Michael K. Williams and Tyrese Gibson. Tarantino had actually written the role with Will Smith in mind, but despite Smith's agents and manager urging him to accept it, Smith declined. Cuba Gooding Jr. had lobbied strongly for the role but Tarantino would not consider him. According to Gooding it's his biggest disappointment.
While both Di Caprio and Samuel L Jackson were great with these respective characters, it was the later performance that I was really joyed by. Back when I was writing my review for Con Air I think it was, I mentioned how I admired the fact that Nicholas Cage is always shaking things up in terms of performance when compared with some actors who seem content to trot out the same performance time and time again. While I didn't name any names one actor who did pop into my mind was Samuel L Jackson. A lot of the time in the last few years it has felt like he's just phoned in his performances and that it's just been a case of Samuel L Jackson simply being Samuel L Jackson. While that has still been entertaining and good enough for the most part it's nice to see him really show up and 'act' again. And he's fantastic. Oh and a great make-up job on him as well. While Jackson may run him close however, taking home the award for the film's MVP would definitely have to be Christoph Waltz. He is an absolute blast as Dr. King Schultz, the dentist turned bounty hunter. He displays great charisma and great comic timing and just seems a perfect fit to deliver Tarantino's colourful dialogue. Waltz's performance made me all the more pissed off about the rather unceremonious fate that befalls the character. After contributing so much to the film he is disposed of and all but forgotten for the film's closing stretch. Oh and in a minor role early on Don Johnson is a whole lot of fun.

I think that Jamie Foxx does a very solid job as the titular Django although the character makes it very hard for him to break out and really make the kind of impression that Waltz, Di Caprio and Jackson are able to make. As a result he gets rather overshadowed in their company. His Django is very much the strong, silent type which means that he rarely gets the chance to really express himself. To be fair to Foxx, on the rare occasions where he is asked to convey some emotions merely through his eyes he does a fine job. The character I feel highlights what I saw to be one of the real flaws of the film, particularly the longer the film went along. The main thrust of the whole film is supposed to be the romance between Foxx's Django and his wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington. Why Django teams up with Schultz in the first place, why Schultz trains him, why they go about the elaborate ruse to try and trick Candie, why Django goes back to Candyland for the blood-soaked finale; it's their love that is supposed to be the driving force for all of that which unfolds, that everything revolves around. And yet we never really get to know either character or see any evidence of their love. Given Tarantino's propensity for non-linear stories I was expecting to get a series of flashbacks to flesh out the relationship, but other than the odd glimpse here and there it never really transpired. We never come to really know Django other than on the most superficial and shallow terms; that he's very 'cool' and quite the bad ass. We know nothing of his backstory or his character. And the Broomhilda character fares even worse. Kerry Washington is given no chance whatsoever to make an impression, to create a character worthy of such devotion on Django's behalf. And we're never given any personal reason to care for the character, to root for her freedom, other than through a general sense of right. So despite being the central cause of everything their relationship is given no development at all. At the very best that would be disappointing but given Django's epic runtime I think it's approaching criminal that with so much time at his disposal Tarantino couldn't find the time to properly flesh out this important facet of the film. The film and Tarantino seem to get to caught up with the battle of wits between Candie and Schultz and drops the ball on this aspect.

Film Trivia Snippets - When Dr. Schultz is negotiating to buy the Mandingo fighter Eskimo Joe, he says that he wants to rename him Black Hercules. That was the real-life nickname of Ken Norton, the boxer who starred in the film Mandingo. /// Aside from films which listed the cast alphabetically (Celebrity and Don's Plum) Django marked the first occasion in 16 years that Leonardo DiCaprio didn not receive top billing. /// Throughout the production Jamie Foxx actually rode his own horse, Cheetah, during filming. /// Whilst at Comic-Con Tarantino revealed that the characters of Django and Broomhilda are intended to be the great-great-great-grandparents of John Shaft from the series of Shaft films. An overt reference to this can be found in Broomhilda's full name - Broomhilda Von Schaft. /// A riding accident during training saw Christoph Waltz thrown off his horse, breaking his pelvis in the process. To make him feel better Jamie Foxx presented him with a gift; a saddle with a seat belt. /// For the role of Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (played by Laura Cayouette) both Zoe Bell and Lady Gaga were under consideration.
As far as his films go I actually found Tarantino's direction to be quite reserved by his standards. The only obviously noticeable little quirk is the camera's infrequent tendency to zoom in on a character's face for a reaction shot of some kind. It's not a smooth movement, it's rather jittery and comes across as deliberately quite amateurish. I assume that's it a move designed to mimic the original series of Django movies, and perhaps spaghetti westerns in general. I don't really have experience of either to know for sure. Visually the film also benefits from some lovely photography courtesy of Robert Richardson who handsomely captures some beautiful, sweeping vistas. Tarantino is often hailed as one of the most original directors in Hollywood, and while that may be true when compared with all the other directors in Tinseltown, is it just me or is he sort of making the same film over and over again these days? That may sound daft given the huge disparity between genres and eras in his films; 1800s western, World War II film, revenge film with a heavy Japanese influence etc. But they all feel very similar; largely revenge films with dialogue-heavy scenes that attempt to push boundaries with their violence. I'd love to see him try something truly different. Oh and can a friend of his or whoever please have a word with QT and convince him to stop cameoing. Fair enough you could argue that when he puts so much time and effort in as he clearly does he has earned the right to show his face. However it just reeks of ego and there's no getting around the fact that he cannot act, and whenever he shows up I just feel it hurts his films because it's so distracting.

As has been the case for just about every film that Tarantino has ever associated himself with, Django Uncahined arrived in cinemas with a wave of controversy. Well maybe not a wave so much as a smattering of complaints led by one man, namely QT's old foe Spike Lee who had a problem both with Tarantino's continued use of the word n*gger in his films and his treatment of the issue of slavery. Yes the dreaded 'n word' is used to a quite staggering degree throughout the film, but what exactly do you expect given the film's setting? Taking place in the South of the 1800s and set within the world of slave trading it would seem strange if it wasn't uttered constantly. If he had omitted the word's use Tarantino would have then received criticism for glossing over the truth so he couldn't win. It's a similar case with the film's violence. Some of the violence really is quite nasty and vivid, from the early occasions of mandingo fighting and a vicious dog attacks, to the final act which erupts into a blood-soaked massacre of quite stunning proportions. Particularly striking is the way that bullets produce such epic splatters and sprays of blood. I also have a problem with the fact that Spike Lee seemingly believes that he has domain over both that word and 'black issues' in general. He seems to find it offensive that a white man concerns himself with such matters, but surely it's just as offensive that he feels as a black man he can talk for and represent the whole race by himself. And as someone who once referred to Samuel L Jackson as a “house slave” I find it very unsavoury that he wants to criticise anyone about racism.

Even when it comes to the Tarantino films that I'm not keen on the one element of them that I've always been able to count on is that they're going to have a pretty awesome soundtrack. And it's a similar tale with Django Unchained. Part of what makes his soundtracks so great is that he goes with songs that are unexpected, that don't feel like they should be a good match for what is on screen, and yet when you see them in context they fit brilliantly. Here we get a mix of some great spaghetti western beats in a score featuring exerts from the back catalogue of Ennio Morricone mixed with a number of great songs from such diverse sources as John Legend, James Brown, 2pac, RZA, Richie Havens and Johnny Cash. The highlight of the whole soundtrack would have to be the brilliant main theme which is lifted from the original Django film of 1966. There were only one or two occasions where I felt that the music didn't work, namely when he employed rap music. It just felt like an example of Tarantino trying too hard to include something cool. Oh and any film that makes use of the music of Johnny Cash is alright in my book. For me his music has the same effect as dogs. If either of those is included then a film immediately becomes better.

Conclusion - Tarantino returns with a new film, but one that still has many of the same old problems in my eyes. However I did find it a much more entertaining and satisfying experience than many of his films of late. And I'm sure that lovers of his work will lap it up. It's probably amongst the most purely fun and accessible films that he has so far produced and has some excellent scenes, great performances and a fun soundtrack. While I've struggled to warm to a number of his films this is one I could see growing on me with a repeat viewing or two.