D-J-A-N-G-O. The D is silent.
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 165 minutes
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Tarantino’s first western film sees him return with a lot of the usual hallmarks that are associated with him as an auteur. This film is heavy on violence with lots of gun-play and fighting, and it is filled with plenty of dialogue which drives the story as much as the action. Like some of his other films there is also a theme of vengeance running through it, something that was explored a little in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) by Shosanna and the American-Jewish commandos; in “Death Proof” (2007) by the surviving women; sort of in “Jackie Brown” (1997), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) too. This time out though, the main vengeance is between a freed slave and slavers in the 1850’s wild west.
Christoph Waltz plays Dentist/Bounty Hunter Dr King Schultz, who frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx), who will help him find some outlaws he has been tracking for a bounty. Django has his own plans though and wants vengeance against the racial injustices that are rife, and primarily to find his wife Broomhilda von Shaft. They learn that she is being held as a slave at the Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) “Candyland” plantation in Mississippi. On route to Mississippi, Django learns all about bounty hunting from working with Schultz and they develop a mutual respect for one and other.
Although Jamie Foxx was not the first name out of the hat when Tarantino went into casting, he delivers a great performance as Django. As his story arc develops, he gives the role some excellent character and strength which I liked, which contrasted nicely with Waltz’s more polite and sensitive character. Django and Schultz have a good chemistry that works well in tandem, one being gritty and raw, and the other being quieter and more reserved. One being about action now, and the other being more of a planner. Both manage to learn from each other as the story progresses and, in a sense, this becomes a bit of a buddy road trip (on horseback) film. In Tarantino’s last film “Inglourious Basterds” I felt that Waltz’s performance was one of the standouts, and this film he continues that level of acting once more. I do not prefer one of the roles over the other, they are both equally on par here.
The pantomime villain of the film is DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie. On the surface a well-mannered southern gentleman, despite obviously being a slaver and dictator in his own kingdom. This performance caught me off guard slightly and the usual lovable DiCaprio was able to turn on the offensive as easy as turning on a light switch. One minute he was being presented as calm and jovial, the next minute displaying a mean as hell psychopath willing to risk everything. Tarantino had wanted to work with DiCaprio for a while, even try to get him for a role in “Inglourious Basterds“, so in “Django Unchained” he finally got his man.
Fun Fact: Famously DiCaprio suffered an injury in the film. When he smashes the glass on the table during dinner with Schultz and Django he genuinely cut himself but carried on performing. The film crew were surprised at first but carried on working too. The end result was an intense scene where DiCaprio gave his own blood for the film.
I must mention Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in this, he was incredible. He made my skin crawl and was a genuinely haunting character. He felt as much a bad guy as Calvin Candie was. In learning to survive and the way he adapted to do so for a better lifestyle he become corrupted. This corruption was not just the way he was and acted, but also the way he looked, his mannerism, everything about the performance gave me shudders.
Dealing with a film that looks at a dark time in humanities history is always going to invoke ill feelings and this certainly does that. Tarantino’s film here is of course highly stylized and not entirely historically accurate in certain parts, but the main topic of slavery is something that cannot be denied. While “Mandingo” fights might not be accurate, or the wardrobe being display is not always correct for its time, the atrocity of slavery did of course exist and was mainstream in certain parts of America. While Tarantino handles this topic, and the linguistics unabashedly, certain audiences and critics did not respond well to it. While some audiences and critics have said it is offensive to them and handles racial issues terribly, equally the film has received praise from some quarters for the way it authentically handled these things. In this sense, the film does and will divide perceptions and will not make everybody happy or comfortable. In his own justification, Tarantino wanted to do a film which featured the history that America is ashamed to deal with, and which other countries directors feel they do not have a right to deal with.
Fun Fact: DiCaprio wasn’t comfortable using the racial slurs that were called for with his character. He was apparently taken aside by both Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson at different times. Tarantino told him that if he didn’t play it as authentic and nasty as he could audience wouldn’t believe in the performance. Meanwhile, on the racial slurs, Samuel L. Jackson is claimed to have said something along the lines of “Motherfucker, this is just another Tuesday for us.“
This highly stylized western film is tribute to Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, three of which Tarantino openly admitted he paid homage to in making “Django Unchained”. Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 “Django” and his 1968 “The Great Silence”, and Richard Fleischer’s 1975 “Mandingo“. The “Unchained” part of the title may pay tribute to the likes of Corbucci’s 1966 “Hercules Unchained”, or Lee Madden’s 1970’s “Angel Unchained” which is a revenge film against rednecks. Lots of doffs of the cap to Corbucci but then when Tarantino wrote this film he had just finished a book on Corbucci overlap isn’t all that surprising. Furthermore, Corbucci makes a cameo in the film too, which further shows Tarantino’s admiration for the Italian filmmaker.
I enjoyed this film more than I though I was going to. After “Inglourious Basterds” I expected another visually strong film, but one which was a bit messy and unintelligent. In this I got an exciting film that despite its nearly 3-hour runtime it did not feel like it dragged and still offered plenty of twists and turns. It might not have handled certain racial elements well, and I cannot think it did anything for gender politics either the way that women appear only as damsels in distress. But none the less it offered good writing with lots of strong dialogue. The onscreen bromance between Foxx and Waltz was endearing and fun, and DiCaprio’s character gave me a somebody to “boo” and “hiss” at. Add to the writing and the performances some lovely cinematography and well-choreographed scenes, and this film does feel like a modern spaghetti western that is full of grit and style.