Despite a sterling reputation, Quentin Tarantino isn’t the most consistent writer-director. Leaping around between genres, and typically juggling large casts, his experimental work is always interesting… but not always satisfying. Django Unchained fortunately demonstrates the filmmaker on form. A tad overlong, prone to obvious fan service moments and suffering from jarring tonal shifts, this Spaghetti Western-Blaxploitation-Revenge-Actioner (phew!) is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Unlike Tarantino’s last effort, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained delivers what it promises – in spades!
Starting out like a conventional Western before developing a distinct Southern flavour, Django Unchained follows the adventures of former slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Freed by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django becomes Schultz’s partner. It turns out that Django is a natural at “killing white people’, although his ultimate goal is to find and rescue his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington), who has become the property of brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
An instant plus for Django Unchained is the fact that the film’s heroes are easy to rally behind. This is in stark contrast to Inglourious Basterds where, with the exception of maybe 2 characters, the entire cast was a brutal, relentlessly unlikeable lot. Whether that was intentional on Tarantino’s part or not (I suspect it was), if every character is despicable, there’s nothing to get you emotionally invested in the film.
Fortunately though, Schultz is an erudite, eloquent man who, despite his choice of career, is actually quite principled, particularly around the issue of slavery – quite a contrast to Waltz’s slimy character in Basterds. Foxx’s Django, meanwhile, is pure badass. This said, he’s not ice-cold either. He frequently daydreams about being reunited with his wife. And there are some wonderful moments as Django embraces the opportunities his “freeman” status affords him. A particular highlight is the first time he’s allowed to choose his own clothes for an undercover mission. Django is tough and resourceful, but the audience is still permitted to laugh at him.
All this said, Django Unchained isn’t the easiest film to watch. Even if you aren’t American it produces some very complicated feelings in the viewer given that the film combines overblown escapism with an awful, dehumanising slice of US history.
On the one hand you have female servants being stripped at the dinner table to show guests their whip scars, or male slaves being torn apart by dogs when they’re not being forced to fight to the death. On the other hand you have an extended sequence in which Klu Klux Klan forerunners complain about the design of their hoods. And then there’s the cartoonish violence. Django Unchained is violent to the point of ridiculousness. Every bullet produces an explosion of blood and entrails.
Not that Django Unchained ever positions itself as a historically accurate tale, but this constant seesaw between aspects you can’t take seriously and others that are incredibly serious does feel odd at times.
Django Unchained also isn’t without other odd, unnecessary moments. Tarantino himself pops up with a dubious Australian accent, and there’s an extended cameo by Franco Nero – the original Django – that adds nothing to the film but fan service.
The film’s biggest problem though is that ultimately it runs too long. Once certain charismatic characters are removed from the action, a good chunk of energy evaporates from the film… and with it, audience interest. With 20-30 minutes still to go, you start to feel the movie’s 165-minute running time for really the first time.
Still, there’s plenty that makes Django Unchained worth watching: an electric dinner table scene, a gratifying gun battle (or should that be massacre?) and fearless performances by DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson as the film’s main villains.
Although it’s Waltz who has scored Best Supporting Actor awards love, Jackson’s role as Stephen, Candie’s head house slave, is just as deserving of an Oscar nomination. It’s instantly one of the actor’s greatest roles, not to mention one of the most odious bad guys to grace the screen in a long time – sycophantic, sly and relentlessly cruel. There’s a lot going on behind Stephen’s doddery exterior, and Jackson takes the character to some very dark places.
In the end, Django Unchained is massively entertaining despite its flaws. This 5-time Oscar nominee more than makes up for Inglourious Basterds (as you may have guessed, I wasn’t a fan). It’s controversial. It’s fun. And if you can take the liberal splattering of gore and the n-word, it’s totally worthwhile.