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Review – Django Unchained

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By: Stefan Ellison

If there is a director who immediately lets you know he is behind the camera from frame one, it is Quentin Tarantino. Through his eclectic filmography, he has been able to take the films he loved from his video store days and package them into fresh delights. With Django Unchained, Tarantino finally brings us his own take on the western genre, mixed in with some blaxploitation. The film checks off all the boxes we have come to expect from him — from an anachronistic soundtrack to tomato juice-gushing violence to the unique dialogue his characters speak. While I don’t feel Django Unchained ranks as high as Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill, Vol. 1, it still succeeds as yet another worthy entry in Tarantino’s already impressive catalogue.

While Tarantino is directly mimicking the styles of westerns and blaxploitation films, the closest companion piece to Django Unchained is surprisingly Mel Brooks’ 1974 satire Blazing Saddles. Through the first third, the screenplay is written like a full-on comedy that mocks the ignorant and racist times of the Old South. Like Brooks, Tarantino freely uses a racial slur to not only create uncomfortable laughs, but also chuckle at the stupidity of the backwards-thinking people from that horrible era in American history. One sequence, that almost plays out like a Saturday Night Live sketch, has a lynch mob wasting time on arguing about the holes in their Klan-like masks. In another scene, that seems to be taken straight out of Blazing Saddles, small town citizens react in wide-eyed bewilderment at the sight of a black man riding a horse. As he has displayed in his previous films, Tarantino is an expert at making horrific and violent happenings seem funny. What else can you expect from a filmmaker who got instant laughs from a scene in which John Travolta accidentally shoots his backseat passenger in the face?

However, in Django, Tarantino doesn’t always use violence to score laughs — because sometimes violence really is horrific. So, for all the comical blood-splattering he puts on the screen, there are as many moments of pure brutality that illustrate just how badly many African Americans were treated in the pre-Civil War United States.

Of course, none of this would’ve been conveyed well without the strong performances from the ensemble of talented actors. The best of the lot is Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, who also played the scene-stealing Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. He imbues his dentist-turned-bounty hunter with the same sort of soft-spoken calmness, but in a more good-natured manner since Schultz is a far more sympathetic character than Hans Landa. After seeing Waltz perform incredibly well in two consequent Tarantino films, one starts to wish that the director had discovered the man back in his Pulp Fiction days. Waltz’s style of acting seems tailor-made to spout Tarantino’s dialogue and he certainly deserves further awards attention for his role as Dr. King Schultz.

Jamie Foxx also delivers an impressive performance as the titular Django, showing the right level of acting for this role. A lot of other actors would have taken the part to go completely over-the-top and wild, but Foxx plays Django with restraint, giving the character an air of mystery. If anything, his quiet intensity actually helps in making certain scenes either tenser or more heartfelt. Even through simply looking at each other, he has excellent chemistry with Kerry Washington, who plays Django’s frequently-tortured wife Broomhilda.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Leonardo DiCaprio’s manic performance as the maniacal and abusive plantation owner Calvin Candie. He disappears into the role to the point where you wonder if he took a shower every night, simply to wash off the horrific actions of his character. In fact, as soon as Candie appears on the screen, the rather comical tone of the first half of the picture is replaced by an appropriately repulsive one.

Quentin Tarantino wrote a very compelling antagonist in not just Candie, but in his closest confidant as well. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen constantly shifts from personality to personality in a believable way that also makes you wonder as to what his full motives are and how much power he holds over the other characters. It is through this interesting set of characters that Tarantino is able to transport us back to that time period just as much as the carefully constructed sets and costumes do.

However, Django Unchained is not without flaws either, especially when it comes to music. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino was smart in using Ennio Morricone themes through the film. Morricone is also utilised in the soundtrack to Django Unchained and the opening titles set to the excellent theme song from the film where this one’s title borrows its name-sake from. Unfortunately, the addition of modern hip-hop tunes is incredibly distracting, not meshing with the on-screen imagery and even almost ruining an otherwise exciting gun fight. The result is simply a poor attempt at showing Django’s inner anger and it is very jarring when the rap kicks in. Another moment that took me out of the picture is the requisite cameo from Quentin Tarantino. This is not the first time he has done this, but by giving himself a poor Australian accent, I started to wander why he did not give the part to a cult Aussie favourite like Paul Hogan or George Lazenby.

Another element that falls short in Django Unchained has an unfortunate reasoning behind it. Two years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke sadly passed away and her touch is greatly missed in this film. One of the reasons Inglourious Basterds worked so well was because of the exceptional editing. Ninety percent of that film consisted of characters either sitting or standing around talking and because of Menke’s contributions, most of those scenes were incredibly tense and involving. The pacing in Inglourious Basterds was extraordinary, making two-and-a-half hours feel more like thirty minutes. Django Unchained does not have that luxury. Fred Raskin’s work is solid, but he lacks Menke’s ability of pulling Tarantino back and getting him to cut some of the more unnecessary bits and pieces. The first ninety minutes flow very well, but the pace starts to become rather spotty in the third act. The ending, in particular, starts to become rather restless and as such, Django Unchained lasts much longer than it needs to.

Questionable editing and soundtrack choices aside, Quentin Tarantino has crafted yet another great film with his keen eye for visual panache and lyrical dialogue. While not one of my favourite films of his, it ticks all of the necessary boxes of an invigorating and fun western tale, while managing to throw in the harshness of the time period, too. Simply put, this is as far away from a John Wayne western as you are likely to get.


Rating: A-


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