Review – Django Unchained

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A slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in the American south not long before the Civil War is freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) to assist him in tracking down three men. Through their journey, they become friends and strike up a partnership. Django confides in Shultz that he is married and will track down his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Shultz, enamored with the fact that Django’s wife has a German name and speaks his native tongue agrees to help him find her but they soon discover that Broomhilda is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a ruthless plantation owner and ‘mandingo trader’. Shultz and Django must convince Candie and his devoted servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) to sell Broomhilda without arousing suspicion.

Whenever Tarantino has a new picture out it’s always an event. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction allowed him this and I for one am always excited when his new release date is set. Another thing to say is that Tarantino never makes a film that doesn’t spark an interesting conversation. This is an achievement and I applaud him for that. So now we have Django Unchained, Tarantino’s run at the American slave trade.

I liked Django Unchained. I really did. After this review you may not believe me but I did.

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I loved the performances, without doubt the highlight of this film. Christoph Waltz is wonderful, Leonardo Dicaprio is excellent and Samuel L. Jackson is wonderfully excellent as Stephen, Calvin Candie’s loyal ‘house nigger’. Tarantino’s language is like a jigsaw puzzle that when put together shows a picture of Jackson in his Pulp Fiction ‘jerry curl’. No man talks the Tarantino talk like Big Sam, as has been shown before and is shown again here. Waltz is brilliant but Jackson is the master. Dicaprio and Jackson’s interplay is so expertly written and performed that I could listen to them talk back and forth other all day.

But…..Django Unchained does have problems.

In the same way I had a problem with Death Proof’s fake warped film and missing reels I also have problems with Django’s opening credits. Once you see a sixties/seventies movie font used in a 2012 western what can you do but believe it to be, to put it kindly, an homage or, to put it less kindly, a pastiche. It doesn’t seem real to me. It’s an artistic choice and I understand why has chosen it but it takes me out of the story before I’ve even been given a chance to get into it. Now my brain is not thinking about these poor black fellows in their chains, their lifelong struggle and their dream to rise up and avenge their forgotten brothers and sisters, I’m thinking “Which film did Tarantino see that font in?” “What movie uses this music?” “There’s the old Django talking to the young Django! That’s fun, but wait, where were we?”

Another thing, its 45 minutes too long. At one hour twenty minutes I was thinking ‘This film is pacy! Bravo for trimming the fat Quentin!’ After which the film seemed to hear me and disagree. There is a deeper problem with the film’s pacing which is thus: If you want to make an exploitation movie in the vein of the old classics, don’t make it nearly three hours long. Make it an hour thirty and get out. Have the exploitation and the b-movie references but in doing this you must abide by their rules otherwise the film feels false.

I also had major problems with the music. The director has mentioned many times how he doesn’t like to use scored music and prefers picking his own tracks but the music choices in some parts of this film feel like he chose them on his ipod Shuffle. I swear at one point I believed Django and Dr. Shultz we’re going to break into song. Folk rock blends into hip hop into R&B into vintage film scores. If the music was seen as a character in film this one would be a paranoid schizophrenic.

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My final point, which I must try to explain carefully, is that I don’t think Tarantino took the film as far as he could concerning the struggle of the black man in pre-Civil War Southern America. Now how far can someone go to describe this stage of American history? I would guess no piece of art would ever even get close but how far can you push it? I never had a visceral reaction to what was happening to the slaves in this film. I felt sorry for them but I didn’t feel for the slaves as I should have. Why is this? Am I too aware of the practicalities of the filmmaking process? Am I a racist? People could say, “Well, you’re not black, how could you possibly start to feel for these characters in any real way?” to which my response would be I’m not a parent either but I cried like a baby at Sophie’s Choice, I’m not a little cowboy but Toy Story 3 killed me. Django didn’t get there for me, but it wasn’t a failure. There is a shot in the film where Django and Dr. Shultz ride onto Candie’s plantation ‘Candyland’. Django is riding on top of his horse, looking every bit the hero we know he will be. Stephen sees him and his face is one of pure hatred, he cannot understand why this black man would ever be allowed near a horse, let alone astride one. The director then cuts to a shot of one of the slaves. His face in that shot was the most emotive part of the film. I could feel his anger, pride and hatred all twisted and confused in his exhausted face.  Behind all the bells and whistles, this shot did it for me.

Django Unchained was fun. More fun than I have given it credit for in this review, but I expect a lot from Quentin Tarantino and I hope he takes these points on board and has a jolly good think about them. I’m sure he’s reading…

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