FILM REVIEW: Django Unchained


After altering the history of World War II in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has turned his unique attentions to nineteenth century America and the slave trade. Django Unchained follows the story of titular slave Django (Jamie Foxx), freed by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter seeking Django's help in catching a quarry. The pair then team up and work towards rescuing Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from extravagant plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) at his home, Candieland.

The structure of the film is set up early in an exchange between Django and Schultz in which the German bounty hunter reveals the story of Broomhilda's namesake, a princess in German legend who is  imprisoned atop a mountain and guarded by both hellfire and a dragon before being rescued by the hero Siegfried. From this point on, we're treated to a Spaghetti Western (or Southern as Tarantino prefers) rewriting of this fairytale and as such, gives us probably the most structurally conventional Tarantino we've ever had. There are the odd illustrative flashbacks, but for the most part, the narrative plays out in a linear fashion. Tarantino's love of the spaghetti genre is present in every single frame, from the fast zooms into characters' faces or the brief appearances of stock characters like the Sheriff or the U.S. Marshall, though they are re-worked into the wider fairytale narrative rather than simply hitting the usual beats of the genre. 

One of the film's best aspects is its excellent cast; from the brief cameos to the starring roles, each actor performs their roles with relish. DiCaprio in particular looks like he's having a whale of time as Candie, a man who is both a gentleman and a brutal killer. Likewise Waltz has a flair for performing Tarantino's dialogue and was given some wonderful speeches while Foxx gives a strong, mostly silent performance that imbues Django with a dangerous physicality. It is Samuel L. Jackson though whose performance as Stephen, Calvin's right-hand man, that lingers long in the memory afterwards. He's given the most complex character, a slave who believes in slavery and who cannot comprehend Django's freedom or attitude. 


The film has also been subject to plenty of controversy for its depiction of a highly sensitive issue, but whilst it wasn't necessarily sensitively handled (this is Tarantino after all), at no point did it feel as if the violence against the slaves was glorified or glossed over. Violence in the film was often cartoon-like, explosions of blood bursting all over the place after someone is shot, but this is predominantly utilised for the white characters' deaths, not the slaves. In fact, any violence against the slave characters made for extremely uncomfortable viewing, particularly the 'mandingo' fight that takes place in Candie's first scene. Tarantino naturally doesn't shy away from depicting the brutality of the fight, but he is clearly focussing in on it, not to glorify or gloss over, but to make you uneasy.

There are some truly brilliant moments in here, particularly in the first third of the film which was uniformly excellent. In particular, the Ku Klux Klan raid against Django and Schultz was a masterpiece of comic structuring with the drama of the raid itself providing a starkly dramatic contrast to the hilarity of the gang beforehand, debating the practicality of their masks. It's a Blazing Saddles-level of humour, taking a group as horrific and evil as the KKK and reducing them to a laughing stock in just a few lines. It was by far my favourite moment of the film, but unfortunately, the rest didn't quite match up.

Part of the problem was that the film was just too long, and many of the scenes within it needed trimming down (which makes you realise just how good Tarantino's partnership with Sally Menke was). Once the characters set off for Candlieland, the film slowed to a snail's pace and only recovered in brief moments towards the end. The dinner scene in Candieland was a classic example, building up to a tension akin to that of the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds. The plot also took an illogical turn, with an over elaborate scheme for getting Broomhilda back and an extra half an hour of narrative that simply didn't need to be there. As a result, the film is uneven, flashes of brilliance tempered with scenes that are simply too long and too overwrought.

However, there is one element of the film that is consistently excellent throughout and that is the soundtrack. Tarantino has always been famous for selecting brilliant musical accompaniments for his films and here is no different. Once again, the anachronistic songs work well, giving Django in particular a timeless quality, fitting in well with the timeless quality that the fairytale structure provides, despite the specific mid-nineteenth century setting. Ennio Morricone's contributions also ensures that it is set firmly within the spaghetti western tradition by providing an aural link that everyone associates with this particular genre. It's a brilliant soundtrack and is likely to be considered one of the director's best.

It's just a shame that Django Unchained in its entirety is a wildly uneven film, hampered by a final half that operates on a slow pace, yet featuring some fantastic moments and brilliant performances. It had the potential to be great, but unfortunately, never quite hits a consistent high and also features probably the worst Quentin Tarantino cameo yet.

***

- Becky

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