With the help of a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What we thought:
It was almost inevitable that Quentin Tarantino would make a western. With a career built on films that look back and are indebted to the filmmakers that came before him, it almost seems as if Tarantino has spent his career chronologically working his way back through the iconic periods of cinema. Starting with crime, he moved onto kung fu, then the Second World War and now finally, with Django Unchained, a western.
Tarantino might be tackling the particularly thorny issue of slavery in the Deep South, but, much like his revisionist approach to World War II history in Inglourious Basterds, he sets his story in the genre of Exploitation Cinema, a tactic which allows for greater licence with its contentious subject matter than a straight approach might. This is a world where violence is exaggerated to nigh cartoonish levels and the characters exist on a similarly exaggerated scale.
Christoph Waltz's verbose Dr Schultz King is just the kind of exaggerated that I mean. Here playing a bounty hunter sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, this is the second time that Waltz has worked with Tarantino, following his iconic role as the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. It's not surprising that the two seem to enjoy working with each other as Waltz's obvious joy for playing with words seems a perfect match for the writer-director who seems to love writing reams of colorful dialogue. Waltz is clearly having fun with his role and it makes him fun to watch.
The same goes for DiCaprio, who is quite obviously having a whale of a time playing the outlandish villain, Calvin Candie, owner of the Candiland plantation. Candie is a dandified scumbag, all stained teeth and pompous swagger, and DiCaprio makes him both monstrous and charismatic. A dinner table sequence with him, Waltz, Jackson and Foxx, though hardly coming close to the pub sequence in Inglourious, manages to be utterly enthralling and builds to a cracking climax.
Jackson is positively hateful as the Servant Head, Steven, a man who sees nothing wrong in putting the needs of the cruel slave-masters ahead of that of the slaves. His character is one who has seen what happens to those who rebel against the system (brutal lashings and a spell in a hotbox are some of the punishments meted out here for slaves who don't toe the line) and has decided to save his own skin by throwing his lot in with the winning team (something that should strike pretty hard here given our own history).
I've seen opinion calling Jamie Foxx, as the titular Django, the weak link of the cast. I can see how some might see it that way but it works as the film needs a solid centre in amongst all the outrageousness and that's what Foxx brings. Foxx plays Django as restrained, a quiet, smart and reserved man, one who who stands tall and with pride. And while he might be a man of few words, mess him with and you'll soon learn why you shouldn't.
In telling his story, Tarantino doesn't shy from showing the ugly side of slavery or any other opportunities for outlandish violence. From a woman being brutally whipped to an even more brutal fight between two men while others sit on watching, Django can be a tough watch for sensitive viewers. This is a film where bullet wounds don't just spurt blood; they explode in a bloody fountain.
Still, even as he doesn't shy away from the ugly face of slavery, he wisely injects the film with welcome levity. Not surprisingly, Waltz is the one who provides much of the film's humour but, there are chucklesome bits scattered throughout. Much of this comes courtesy of Tarantino mocking the practice of racism and how staunch adherents to it frequently become fools for its absurd necessities. One example, a scene with a group of bumbling Klu Klux Klan members, might very well go down as one the funniest scenes of the year.
Django Unchained clocks in at close to three hours long and though your attention will rarely waver, the pacing does feel off at times. It is hugely watchable despite that run time, but even as it builds and builds, its ending doesn't come together as well as it could have.
Perhaps missing the talents of his regular editor, the late Sally Menke, Tarantino produces a climax, that, while certainly explosive, lacks some much needed punch. A bit of tightening could have helped here.
It's a minor quibble though as, for most of its screentime, Django Unchained, is fun, funny, and marvellously compelling. With the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson, it's also one of the best looking films of Tarantino's career. If you enjoyed Inglourious Basterds and are a fan of Tarantino's trademark dialogue, then this film is certainly worth your time.