Django Unchained (2012)

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Quentin Tarantino’s reimagining of the Spaghetti Western references a multitude of films from the genre, but it still manages to maintain a fresh approach.

Our hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed by well-dressed German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz), who can be seen as the helper, dispatcher and the donor; he sends our hero on his journey. The two characters become partners, each helping the other on their individual quests, Django to rescue the love of his life from slavery and to identify two brothers with a rather large bounty on their heads for Dr. Schultz to claim. Our villain is wealthy plantation owner and Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who also owns the princess who needs rescuing, the love of Django’s life; Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Django Unchained has a classical narrative driven by revenge and archetypal characters but beautifully embellished with magnificent dialogue and a truly unique vision. Quite rightly Tarantino picked up both a BAFTA and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Django and it is indeed the dense yet not overly used dialogue that really drives the film, along with the splendid acting. The director’s stylisation seems far more refined, utilizing slow motion quasi-regularly and indulging occasionally but, dare I say it, choosing a far more mainstream approach to storytelling. Thus the narrative structure is predominantly chronological and the characters are, for the most part, morally unambiguous with clear motivations.

There remains Tarantino’s notorious extreme violence but the serious subject matter of slavery has resulted in a more mature approach from Tarantino. Do not despair though, his playful side has not vanished, with some dark humour throughout, one scene in particular with an early representation of the Ku Klux Klan is extremely memorable and amusing.

The film’s identity is immediately established; bold, nostalgic opening credits reveal the auteur at the helm but convincing set designs and costume ensure this never feels paradoxical. Django is not the strongest character in this tale, a quiet, contemplative hero, Foxx subtly develops the character ensuring we are rooting for him at the climatic finale. Indeed the greatest characters are that of Christoph Waltz’s eloquent dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz and DiCaprio’s menacing yet mesmeric Calvin Candie, the owner of a Mississippi plantation with a penchant for watching his slaves fight till the death. Samuel L. Jackson is almost unrecognizable as Calvin’s head of the household Stephen and Kerry Washington does a commendable job as the pretty Hildy.

At an epic 2 hours and 45 minutes, the runtime certainly challenges audiences, but Tarantino masterfully structures the plot and the introduction of intriguing new character Candie and his plantation Candieland, bring new gusto to the pace. As with most of Tarantino’s later works, it does feel self-indulgent, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no doubt in the director’s passion for cinema, with references to the 1960s Django westerns, 1975’s Mandingo and Taras Bulba (1962), amongst others, but this is not a film for cinephiles only.

As with all of Tarantino’s work, music is integral to the film, and there is an eclectic collection accompanying it, with tracks reminiscent of classic western scores to a bit of rap. Most works well, but occasionally the music loses its cool edge and moves into being a little too cheesy and the overall soundtrack is by no means Tarantino at his best.

This is a film dominated by male characters, reflecting the time the film is set in, the female characters do feel deliberately one-dimensional, and Hildy is a typical damsel in distress. However, there is one female character in a mask who we see briefly twice with no explanation as to her purpose. After a little investigating it seems the character, played by Zoe Bell (also in Deathproof), was originally planned to have much more of a role in the film, but the scenes were cut, which is a shame as this could have been an interesting plot-strand. So despite the lengthy runtime, it seems Tarantino does edit!

Few filmmakers could successfully combine the Western with Blaxploitation, cover the topic of slavery, have humour and such an epic runtime and produce a film that is still entertaining so kudos to Tarantino, whilst not his greatest achievement it is certainly not his worst.

The special features on the Blu-ray are decent but not outstanding. A feature, Reimagining the Spaghetti Western, is a disappointing 13 minutes long and seems more concerned with the fact that no horses were harmed in the making of the film than actually showing and discussing the making of the film. The costume design of Sharen Davis gives a nice insight into the specificities of the costumes, Remembering J.Michael Riva: The Production Design is an interesting feature and there are unnecessary Blu-ray and soundtrack promos, overall could be a lot better.

Django Unchained is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 165 mins
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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