Django Unchained: DVD Review
Reviewed by James Wynne.
WARNING: FULL SPOILERS!
If you’ve a certain fondness for Quentin Tarantino’s last outing, Inglorious Basterds (2009), and anything more than a mild interest in the Western genre, you’ll most probably love this film. It’s as stylish and as black-humoured as should be expected of the filmmaker famed for bucking the conventions of his craft to produce work of a wholly unique – and some might say; acquired – flavour. Django Unchained is all this and more; it boasts a stalwart leading and supporting cast (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson), and is written, directed and scored with such stylistic flourish, every single minute of its runtime is one to cherish.
Set in the southern states of America during the mid-to-late 1800s, a period rife with the enslavement of African Americans, Django (the “D” is silent) is one such victim of this regime. That is until a seemingly unassuming dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), draws his guns quicker than Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti Western, and dispatches the accompanying enslavers, before promptly enlisting Django to help him locate his three bounties (and he’s not simply after some lovely chocolate-coated coconut, either – the bounties he desires are three enslavers that previously held Django for their own). What follows is a murderous sprawl through the southern regions of the United States to locate Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), as the mentoring partnership between Schultz and Django leaves a bloody trail in its wake.
Christoph Waltz simply shines as the kindly, principled killer. In two back-to-back Tarantino projects, the man has exemplified a commendable diversity to his acting (the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar were thoroughly deserved, I can tell you). Dr. Schultz and the merciless Col. Hans Landa (Inglorious Basterds) are both German, and both seasoned killers in their respective stories, but the characters couldn’t be farther apart, thanks to the pathos with which Christoph imbues Schultz (which is no mean feat, when he’s also violently dispatching people left, right and centre), as opposed to the steely callousness he brought to the role of Hans Landa. It’s a credit to the sublime scripting of Waltz’s character, and his interpretation of it therein, that this bounty hunter/dentist is such a warming presence amongst all the black comedy and torrents of CGI blood. Schultz’s eventual demise is…well, to put it a child’s way; it’s just not fair! Tarantino is about as merciful as many of the characters he architects (which is to say; not at all), and infamous for killing those in the limelight of his stories, but even so, Schultz’s death packs an almighty wallop (note: a pouting, downturned bottom lip is the common response to this scene). At least he goes out in style; with a whip fast shot of his miniature pistol and a slick, smiling line to accompany his final kill.
The entire story of Django Unchained hinges on its diverse array of characters, and though it is Waltz’s that shines brightest, every last one of them are a joy to watch. Jamie Foxx does a superb job of the placid slave, turned bounty hunter. Some of his best scenes come early on as he adjusts to life out of his shackles, under the guidance of Schultz. Tarantino brilliantly makes light of the transition, most notably when Django is informed that as a free man he’s perfectly entitled to choose his own clothes, and ends up dressing himself in the most ridiculously conspicuous fashion.
Likewise, DiCaprio seems to have had a ball as the psychotic plantation owner, Calvin Candie. He fulfils a role not dissimilar to that of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, as he becomes the very same instrument of escalating tension that eventually unleashes itself in a climactic hail of bullets. DiCaprio thrives, exuding a disconcertingly playful style of malice, as he knowingly torments Schultz and Django to unravel their deception. It’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, though, that emerges as the most outright contemptuous character; the crotchety old bird on Candie’s shoulder. Stephen’s willing aid also introduces a notable element of ambiguity, which quite correctly infers that skin colour does not define who is good, and who is bad.
Other highlights are Don Johnson’s (Miami Vice) brief, but outrageously funny appearance as Big Daddy (his response to the slave girl inquiring if she should treat Django ‘Freeman’ like the white folk is deadpan at its finest), and the Klu Klux Klan’s debacle over the arrangement of the eyeholes on their masks. Even the over the top gore is worth commendation, thanks to the variation and ridiculousness of it; it’s almost cartoon in essence.
If I have any criticisms, it’s that Django’s final assault feels a bit like excess after the immensity of the one that preceded it. One can only take so much gory action before it inevitably begins to grate. Otherwise, the only real issues is Django’s immediate grasp of firearm marksmanship. Schultz hints that his skill with a pistol and rifle is due to a rare degree of natural talent, but it would have served events better to see Django learning the art, rather than possessing a mastery of it to equal that of Schultz’s the second we see him with a weapon in his hand.
To conclude, there are more anachronisms than you can shake a stick at, but historical accuracy isn’t at all on this film’s agenda; it’s just a darkly comedic jaunt through gruesome action sequences and the many tropes of the Western genre. And it’s a raucous ride, full to the brim with some wonderfully colourful characters, expertly crafted and observant comedy, with an archaic Western flair. Although the controversy surrounding slavery is confronted at various points throughout the movie, it’s done so in the customary, jesting style of a Tarantino script.
Released: 20 May 2013 on DVD & Blu-ray.