In 1992 an independent film called Reservoir Dogs premiered at The Sundance Film Festival. With the film the world was introduced to a young film maker called Quentin Tarantino and the rest, as they say, is history. The film was a phenomenon and showcased Tarantino as one of the most talented and ground breaking directors of his generation. From then on, news of a new Tarantino films carries with it high expectations and anticipation. This year it was the release of Django Unchained, what Tarantino dubbed a ‘Southern;’ a western set in the deep-south. It follows the adventures of a freed slave, Jamie Foxx, on his quest to save the woman he loves from a cruel plantation owner. A thrilling, compelling film that ranks among the best of the directors work and is easily my film of 2013.
Django Unchained was partly inspired by the Sergio Corbucci film Django (actor Franco Nero makes a cameo appearance in Tarantino’s version); influencing the story as well as the iconic Spaghetti Western style. Not just in the imagery of the film, (horses, guns, hats and the American outdoors), but the moral and structure of the story.
It centres on wanderers and their quest to restore justice and honour. As the film progresses, it becomes less about the bounties and more about personal vengeance for Django. Innocence is lost. The hero here becomes, at times, morally conflicted as he must face a ‘showdown’ to restore balance. It’s an easily recognised genre that has been told countless times but here Tarantino refreshes in delivery creating a unique tale. At the heart of the film is a simple fable. The film follows a fallen prince that must rescue the stolen princess. It’s a love story that has to overcome horrible odds. You follow Django and route for him to secede in his quest.
Structurally this is a lot linear then most of Tarantino’s films, with the exception of a few short flashbacks. For a wider audience, this makes the film feel less convoluted than his previous works. The effect is a no less thrilling story but no playing catch up mid-way through.
Secondary to Foxx is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz. The most interesting thing about Waltz’s character is his central contradiction. King detests slavery and the treatment of black people in America yet he has no issue killing people for money. He’s morally ambiguous. Despite his profession King acts as friend and teacher to Django and wants to help him save his wife. Waltz plays King with charisma and acts as the voice of reason and guidance throughout the film. Its his conscious that leads to his final show down with Calvin. If Calvin is the moral disintegration of the south then King is its future. He deserved his Best Supporting Actor Award and it is understandable why Tarantino likes casting him.
The main awards and nominations for the film may have gone to Waltz and Tarantino but on screen it is DiCaprio that steals the show. He may not have the screen time of Django or King but the short time he spends on screen is electric. His portrayal of Calvin Candy is a varied role. Calvin is, of course. a rich and powerful man but his ignorance and arrogance leads the audience to underestimate his sadistic cruelty. He happily uses French phrases and references despite not speaking French and is often out-witted by King. Even the realisation of Django and Kings real intentions are figured out by Stephen not Candy. This underestimation is quickly dismissed at the films climax; the dinner scene. Calvin slowly shows the depth of his racial hatred and uses Broomhilda as a means to control Django and King. In the scene, which in part was improvised by DiCaprio after he cut his hand, Calvin smoothers Broomhilda with blood and threatens to kill ‘his property’ unless his fee is paid. Audiences are used to DiCaprio being charismatic on screen, (despite no sodding Oscar) but here he’s fantastic playing a rare villain.
Thank god Tarantino is around or we may have all forgotten that Samuel L Jackson is a great actor. His portrayal of Stephen is a truly despicable, manipulative character. Highly intelligent, he is a character who is happy dominant his fellow slaves for the sake of power. The role still has Jackson’s signature stamp, (including one use of mother fucker) but this is a fresh feel for him. The look of the character is also something new for Jackson as he actually looks old, despite Jackson's eternal youth.
The soundtrack to the film is an eclectic affair. A mixture of original songs composed for the film and old classics. Tarantino doesn’t stick to a particular genre or style of artist for his soundtrack. The music heightens the understanding of the film and helps tell the story. No more is this demonstrated than in a short flashback that explains why Django and his wife try to escape their enslavement in a wordless scene. The song, Freedom plays; explaining why the two risk everything by running away. Its not words that express this but music adding to the films story. Highlights of the soundtrack include Django, from the original film, Payback, a James Brown/Tupac mash-up as well as John Legend’s soulful, Who Did That To You.
The first criticism of the film is the same old storm that over shadows every Tarantino film and that is his graphic portrayal of violence. Tarantino has been making films since the early ninties, a staple of each of his films is that he isn’t shy in his use of violence and bad language. You know exactly what your getting with a Tarantino film but with his body of work the violence is backed up with a well written plot, great dialogue and amazing direction. As Tarantino has said so brilliant himself, “you don’t go to a Metallica concert and ask the fuckers to turn the music down”. Violence is a part of cinema and no one can splatter blood across the screen like Quentin Tarantino. But instead of just showing violence for violence sake, he integrates and contextualises it into his plot. Because Django has suffered and retaliates in kind. The film at its core is a revenge story. Django must exact revenge on those who have imprisoned his wife and enslaved his people. The need for vengeance is justifiable, and when Calvin and Stephen meet their violent ends, you can't help but cheer.
Another criticism was in the films portrayal of slavery and its use of the N word. Yes this is a horrible word that by today's standards should never be used. But in the films context this was an everyday word used to describe African Americans. Django may be a stylized and even unrealistic account of the slave trade era but the use of language is accurate for its time. The film in no way condones slavery so the criticisms are more in the cultural shame that the word ignites in America. If you are offended by the use of such language then this isn’t for you.
While the film may have dark and controversial subject matter Tarantino still infuses the film with his trade mark dark humour. The funniest scene involves members of the KKK before an ill fated lynch. They discuss their plans only to engage in a full on argument about their sheets. The fight leads to one member riding away and the rest wearing their head sheets despite not being able to see properly. Similar to films like Blazing Saddles, Tarantino demonstrates that the best way to defeat bigots, racists and other undesirables is to take the piss out of them.
The one criticism that isn’t so easily debated is the films running time. At just under three hours it is a long film. The issue here is not so much in its length but the structure. The climax of the film, and arguably the best, is the dinner sequence. Django and King have manipulated their way into Candie-land and are attempting to buy Broomhilda from Candy with a rouse. Stephen realises that Clavin is being conned and alerts the plantation owner. The scene is electrifying and lead by Leonardo DiCaprio’s improvised actions. A climax such as this should be towards the end of the film. The following resolutions, although brilliant, aren’t as electric as the dinner sequence so there is a lag in the following forty minutes. The film in no way gets boring but can no longer recapture the height of this one climatic scene.
For the sake of the story. I understand why it continues for this length. Django enters Candie Land under a rouse. Its a rouse he plays well but one he greatly dislikes. He has to play the part of a black slaver which he perceives as the ‘lowest of the low’. On his way into Candie Land, he makes decisions that are abysmal but are what he must do to gain Candie’s interest and save his wife. Once the rouse is reveal he must escape and re-enter Candie Land as himself. He makes amends for the decesions he made on entering the plantation and saves his beloved Broomhilda. So as admirable as the story becomes in its finale the film would work better if it were shorter.
In terms of his use of the camera, Tarantino has only become better with age. He wields the camera like a wand. Every shot is perfectly framed and connected to the subject matter. He is and will always be a highly stylized director but he does this not at the cost of a great screenplay. He can be polished and flashy because he has the credentials to back this up. One of the best shots of the film is a tracking shot of Big Daddy on a horse running from an attempted lynching. We see the horse run and revert to Django’s shot gun. We follow the bullet till the horse becomes splattered with blood and a figure falls off while the horse continues to gallop. His direction is thrilling, meant to entice the audience and it certainly serves its purpose.
Like his previous effort, Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has re-written the rules on a genre. Ripping apart the conventions of the spaghetti western to produce his fresh feeling southern. For fans of the great director this will go straight to the top of his body of work. Not a film for the easily offended but a thrilling, compelling story with his trade mark stamp.