Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Plot: A German bounty hunter joins forces with a freed slave to collect the corpses of wanted men for money, but also a plan of vengeance to rescue the latter’s wife from the clutches a plantation owner.
There appear to be two main schools of thought where Quentin Tarantino is concerned. He has unswerving disciples who believe that everything he does is pure genius and on the other hand are those who think that his films are overblown, emphasising nothing more than violence, splattering blood everywhere just for the sake of it. However, in truth Tarantino’s work ranges from iconic films that have very quotable lines such as Pulp Fiction, to the overhyped, inexplicably lauded like Jackie Brown. Say whatever you like about him, but QT draws in the crowds like no other director except say, Steven Spielberg. Django Unchained is the latest in his chequered repertoire, but can it do justice to the long list of star names who are involved?
In 1858, a number of male slaves, chained together, are being transported on foot having been bought by the Speck Brothers, Ace (James Remar) and Dicky (James Russo). Among them is Django (Foxx), who has been forcibly separated from his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington). The group happen upon Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) who, unbeknownst to the men, is a bounty hunter. Schultz identifies Django as a witness who can help him find the Brittle brothers whom he wishes to kill so he can collect the reward money. Schultz shoots one of the brothers and his horse, trapping the other underneath it. He then frees the slaves and lets them exact revenge on their surviving captor. Schultz and Django venture off together and kill the Brittles – the former then promises his new friend that he will help him track down his wife and rescue her.
Having collected various bounties over the winter, Schultz and Django learn that Broomhilde’s is owned by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a ruthless plantation owner who forces his slaves to participate in fights to the death known as “Mandingoes”. Instead of going in all guns blazing, Schultz decides that they must take a softly, softly approach and make a considerable offer for one of the fighters and another, much smaller one for Broomhilde on the side, disappearing before Candie realises that the deal is bogus. The two meet with Candie in Greenville and offer him $12,000 for the fighter. Candie is impressed and invites them to his plantation, where Schultz arranges for Broomhilde to meet Django in secret and inform her of the plot. However, when Candie’s senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) smells a rat, the plan is placed in serious jeopardy.
Django Unchained is the absolute microcosm of Quentin Tarantino’s career as a director. The script crackles along for the vast majority of films, harking back to his best work and has as its core, a fantastic central character. No, this is not actually Django, but the brilliantly constructed Dr. King Schultz. The plot is very tight and rattles along with the quick wit of Schultz, but when he is not on-screen, the dialogue and the movement from one scene to the next feels rather flat. Comparisons can be drawn between Schultz and Christoph Waltz’s character colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. Even though he is on the ‘good’ side this time round, the way in which his fast-talking and charisma fill the screen, jostling for position with the giant elephant in the room, is definitely reminiscent of Landa. Films about slaves tend to feature the protagonist merely attempting to gain their freedom, so to have a vengeance twist (much like Gladiator), is a refreshing change. Tarantino’s signature violence is clearly evident, with bullets ripping into flesh with the aftermath resembling quite literally a bloodbath. This visceral aspect is to be expected, but there a little more restraint and control here than there is in Inglorious, for example. There is much to enjoy in Django that is, until Tarantino himself makes an appearance with a confusing Australian-Cockney accent.
Django arguably marks Christoph Waltz’s finest hour. The character of Dr. Schultz perfectly matches his own charisma and the type of characters that he has become used to playing in recent years. The casting of Django’s liberator is a masterstroke and proves that Waltz deserves to be among the Hollywood A-List. Jamie Foxx’s performance by comparison is helped enormously by Tarantino’s incessant need to zoom in on his face on cue for the dramatic moments – you can imagine QT yelling “anguish!” at Foxx and him doing the necessary. The character of Django for much of the film is essentially to be someone for Schultz to bounce off and that’s exactly what Foxx manages to do. Leonardo DiCaprio, for so long the goody-goody typecast, save for one or two unsavoury roles, here really appears to be enjoying himself as the thoroughly nasty Candie. His exchanges with Waltz and Foxx over the dinner table are truly nail-biting, as we know Schultz and Django’s plan and the possible consequences if Candie finds out. Comic relief is provided by Samuel L. Jackson, who, under about a ton of prosthetics is almost a caricature, but doesn’t seem out-of-place as the rather suspicious devil on Candie’s right shoulder. To be fair, the supporting cast doesn’t really get much of a look-in, although Kerry Washington is superb as the traumatised Broomhilde.
Up until the final twenty minutes or so, Django Unchained can be considered one of Tarantino’s best films. It has everything you could ever want from QT – great dialogue, superb characters and a driving force behind the plot that makes for great entertainment. Then our esteemed director insists on making an appearance and almost undoes all that has gone before – the finale doesn’t quite recover from what is a disastrous and less-than-subtle cameo. There is much to enjoy, but Tarantino needs to learn how to leave the acting to the actors and stay well and truly behind the camera.