I spent about six months being massively excited for the release of Django Unchained prior to its cinema release, mainly because Quentin Tarantino is my favourite film director. When I did see it, it surpassed my incredibly lofty expectations and I couldn’t stop talking about its brilliance. Alas, this little blog did not exist then so I didn’t get to write about it.
Having now watched it again on blu-ray, it is with the benefit of a second viewing that I can finally review it. I’ll lay my cards on the table early here; A second watch has only furthered my love for this movie.
Getting underway in 1858 in the American South, the film charts the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is made free and sets about finding his wife, also a slave, so that he can free her and they can live happily ever after. At the opening of the film, Django is shackled with other slaves, being transported by slave-owners The Speck Brothers. They are quickly confronted by a German purporting to be a dentist; he’s Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and, though it’s true he was once a dentist, he now earns his money as a bounty hunter. He starts trying to negotiate the sale of Django, to which the brothers are not very receptive.
This opening scene gets the movie underway brilliantly. It’s dominated by Christoph Waltz, who is in a major supporting role in a Tarantino movie for the second time, following his masterful stint in Inglorious Basterds. His dialogue is wonderfully written and delivered perfectly by an actor on the very top of his game. Not only do we get classic Tarantino dialogue; we’re also treated early on to some blood shed, which also sets the tone for what we’ll be seeing over the next 2 hours and 50 minutes. It’s almost cartoon-like in the level of claret spilled, and is extreme even by Tarantino’s standards.
Schultz soon sets Django free, and so they begin their journey together. It’s not too long before Django reveals his desire to be re-united with his wife, from whom he was separated when their previous owner sold them. Schultz makes him an offer; Django agrees to become a bounty hunter with Schultz through the winter, after which Shultz will help Django find and free his wife.
In the best way possible, on the journey that we are taken on, we are introduced to some truly horrendous characters. By horrendous, I mean they are awful people, but they are portrayed fantastically by the movie’s fine cast.
Chief among them is Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). He’s a slave owner, and the man that Django traces as owning his wife. Candie is, to say the least, not a very nice man. It is through him that most of the so-called controversial issues dealt with here arise. He owns a mansion called Candie Land, where he is waited on hand and foot by countless slaves. His treatment of them is abhorrent, shocking and is, at times, genuinely difficult to watch. As with many of his films Tarantino doesn’t shy away from dropping the ‘N’ word into the script, with Candie’s dialogue in particular being laced with it.
When we meet him, he is watching a Mandingo fight, where his slave is pitted in a barbaric fight with another man’s slave for the entertainment of their owners. Whether Mandingo fights actually ever existed or not is the source of some doubt amongst historians, but that doesn’t stop Tarantino including it here and making it awful to see. The fight is brutal, but the worst part is the look of enjoyment in Candie’s face. It’s rare that we get to see Di Caprio as a bad guy, but he rises to the role here to produce a truly brilliant performance. Candie cannot have been a particularly nice character to play, but he nails it. From his hate-filled facial expressions to his lingering Southern drawl, everything about this is perfect and it is impossible to think of any other actor who could have played this character this well.
One of my favourite things about Di Caprio in this film is a scene where he injures himself for real. Banging his hand on a table, he cuts it on glass and his hand is instantly dripping with blood. Such is the intensity of his performance though that he does not flinch, never breaking character and just carries on through a brilliant scene. I think that serves quite well as an example of how good he is here. For me, the film really belongs to Di Caprio and Waltz. Their on screen chemistry is incredible, both displaying flawless performances that soar with the aid of a remarkable writer and director.
If Calvin Candie is an evil man (and he really is) then there is one character who is arguably even worse; he is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house-slave. Rather than feeling oppressed like his fellow slaves, Stephen instead relishes his role. Although not exactly well treated, Stephen is an extraordinarily loyal servant to Candie and helps mistreat the other slaves, whom you’d think he might have some sympathy with. Like his fellow cast members, Jackson is excellent. He justifies an extremely brave Tarantino decision to play Stephen for laughs, clearly feeling at home with the black humour he has to portray.
Foxx too plays the role of the eponymous protagonist perfectly well, although he cannot rise above his supporting cast. That is through little fault of his own; the strength of the support is extraordinary. I reserve a special mention also for Kerry Washington, who plays Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda with excellence.
The story craft on display here from Tarantino is also mind blowing. When I’d had time to think this film through properly, I was astonished by the journey the characters had undertaken. Obviously I won’t give away any spoilers, but when I thought about the circumstances of the characters at the very beginning of the film, and then their circumstances at the end, I was amazed. At it’s core, the story is simple but the way Tarantino progresses it is sublime. I know some will disagree, but for me every single second of this movie’s lengthy run time is completely justified and never allows the film to become boring.
This picture features all the hallmarks we now expect of a Tarantino movie. The script throughout is wonderful, including some of his famously banal dialogue that works brilliantly. Unlike some of his other films, there is some genuine laugh-out-loud comedy written into this one. That’s not to say he doesn’t normally write funny lines, but when I saw this in the cinema there were incidences where a full auditorium were emitting full on belly-laughs. Perhaps this a conscious decision taken to offset some of the nasty stuff we see.
As we’ve come to expect from Quentin, he doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to violence. As I said earlier, some of what we see in this film is difficult to watch, but to my mind it is never gratuitous and always moves the story along. We also have a very good soundtrack. It perhaps isn’t quite as good as in some of his earlier work in this regard, but to say that is holding it up to an incredibly high benchmark. The use of Johnny Cash, some hip-hop and some songs written specifically for the movie just work.
In conclusion, Django Unchained is a roaring success. It is, to my mind, a perfect film with no flaws. A tremendous script and story expertly realised by a unique director still at the top of his game is elevated beyond brilliance by a cast who are on fire individually and who genuinely buzz off each other. I can not recommend this film highly enough and no amount of praise I can write will ever do justice to how much love I have for it. Like at least three other Quentin Tarantino movies, I wish I could alter the boundaries of my scoring system to award more than full marks. As I can’t do that though, this astonishing movie will just have to make do with a perfect score.