So here’s the end of my Tarantino review season. Django Unchained is finally out in the UK and so I went to see it last night hoping for something good from Mr Tarantino. His last two films, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds disappointed me in a few ways. Death Proof was full of filler and the same story repeated, Inglourious Basterds had title characters I had no interest in but an incredible sub-plot with Shosanna and her cinema and some of Tarantino’s best writing to date. How to describe Django Unchained then? Simple, pure fecking joy on a grand scale. Click the link for my review!
Explaining the storyline to the average Tarantino film is pretty much pointless. You know it will involve revenge, a unique cast of characters, heavy referencing to exploitation cinema and copious amounts of violence. All of those factors are included in Django Unchained. The basic premise is that a slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by a bounty hunter named Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to assist him in the tracking down of the Brittle Brothers gang. Along the way Shultz learns that Django has a wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was taken from him and sold to a slaver called Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and so Shultz agrees to help Django track her down and free her. Bonus elements included along the way include, but are not limited too, Jonah Hill as a proto-KKK member, The amazing swagger of Dr King Shultz, Jamie Foxx’s bare balls and bullet squibs that are less squib and more exploding balloons of blood. Seriously, the film has the most ridiculously glorious bullet squib gags ever put onto film. They’re beyond Verhoeven-esque.
Tarantino makes a wise move by not taking on slavery and trying to act as though we don’t know how bad it is. His depiction is unflinching and, at times, quite sad but generally he makes sure you know it is the evils of men that you should be more concerned with. And it’s not just white men portrayed as evil. When we arrive at Calvin Candie’s homestead we meet Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), an elderly slave who’s been part of Calvin’s family for generations. He is an evil piece of work and you realise before too long that he plays up a performance for guests. He has Calvin’s ear and maybe even his respect. As evil as Stephen is though Calvin is the real antagonist. I’ll get to DiCaprio’s performance later, point here is that, like many other Tarantino films, there’s bad people everywhere in this world and you know they will likely die a bloody death before the film is over.
As usual Tarantino has culled the film’s score from various sources, using fairly recent pieces such as songs from Johnny Cash and John Legend, but he also uses various themes from Spaghetti Westerns and even a few pieces of classical music. He does so in such a way that by the time you start hearing Rick Ross rapping it somehow feels entirely in place with the setting. I cannot fathom how he manages to pull tricks like this off, but he does. Using the original Django theme was a no-brainer, for sure, but he makes sure it fits this modern take on the Spaghetti Western despite how un-western the song really is.
Django Unchained constantly uses visual techniques to remind you of it’s roots in Italian Westerns and the Blaxsploitation flicks of the seventies by employing a number of perfectly executed snap zooms and some great examples of using the dark of night to enrich the visual style of the film. Tarantino also finds the space to throw in a few Asian cinema references such as in a scene where a villain is shot and his blood sprays over cotton plants in a manner similar to the sort of shots you’d see in Japanese Samurai films. Many locations and sets are shot with a richness of colour and detail that Tarantino hasn’t done since Kill Bill Vol.1. A sequence in the middle of the film recalls Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence by being set in snow covered areas of Texas. It’s a look you rarely see in Westerns and for once it’s nice to see one that isn’t filmed almost entirely at Monument Valley. Among other visual examples of flair include the previously mentioned glorious blood splatter (You honestly have no idea how great it is) and one of the best, most convincing, uses of 3D I’ve ever seen. Yes it is true that the film isn’t presented in 3D, just trust me on this, there’s one shot where he outright mocks the 3D obsession studios have today and it’s brilliant.
Now, about Leonardo DiCaprio. I went into this film expecting some memorable performances from Christoph Waltz and Samuel L Jackson, and they really do deliver. Jackson manages to play a multi-dimensional mixture of crazy old man and terrifying force of evil with that slick ease we expect. Waltz, meanwhile, is a pure joy to watch. But DiCaprio, oh my word, does he steal the show. I realise that sentence may sound wrong. DiCaprio is a fine actor but he;s not known for his diverse range and character acting. Here he turns into an incredibly fun but undeniably nasty villain that has you won over from the very moment he turns his face to the camera for the first time. I had heard that he had trouble getting past the use of that word I am not allowed to say because I am A) white and 2) not in a Tarantino film, but you wouldn’t know he struggled after to see how smoothly he rolls through his lines of dialogue. Calvin Candie is one of those villains you want to see receive his comeuppance but you’d also want to see more of him. When we meet him he is running a slave fighting circuit, here called Mandingo Fights in reference to the film Mandingo. Shultz and Django plan to make him a ridiculous offer for one of his fighters so they can get into Calvin’s home, logically called Candieland, and make an offer for Broomhilda on the pretence of it being a little bonus on top of the Mandingo deal. When Calvin discovers their deception Leo turns the dial up on the intense and pulls out the sort of spine chillingly terrifying villain performance you wish all actors could wring out of their antagonists. He even manages to get so wrapped up in the moment that when he slammed his hands on the table at one point he shattered a glass under his left hand and carried on the scene. Naturally Tarantino worked this into the following shots. Christoph Waltz may have received the Best Supporting Actor nomination this year but, in my opinion, it should be DiCaprio.
This is the first Tarantino film to be made without the masterful editing skills of Sally Menke. She died in 2010 in a hiking accident and with her went a little of the identity of Tarantino’s films. In her place is Fred Raskin who had served as an assistant editor on the two kill Bill movies. Like Menke he has that one awesome previous credit in the form of Tromeo and Juliet, Sally had worked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Irrelevant, of course, but always fun to see where people started. Raskin doesn’t edit in the same manner as Menke but he certainly has some skill. Based on this one film I’d imagine he’d become Tarantino’s new go-to editor. He gets the accelerated action style of editing that Menke used so well down quite well in a number of sequences, such as when Waltz first draws his hidden pistol. Whilst he gets elements like that down well there is a noticeably different feel to the way the film is cut together which is likely more evident to me as I have literally not long got done re-watching all of Tarantino’s films.
Overall Django Unchained is a joy to watch and a damn fine action flick. Don’t go in expecting Tarantino to treat the film as an entirely serious work just because it involves slavery. It is possibly his most overtly funny film to date. Jamie Foxx makes for a good lead and manages to remain charismatic with relatively few lines of dialogue for a 2 and a half hour film. It’s hard to imagine what the film would have been like with Will Smith in the role as it nearly was. I quite liked his gradual disappearance into his character, taken on to fool Candie, as a black slaver. As he begins to act in a more nasty way to the slaves his potential loss of his true self is represented by visions of his wife that gradually appear further and further away from him. When he first sees her for real he is so far away that he can barely see her, but he knows it is her. This element could have been explored in greater detail but it all ties into his barely contained rage so as much as needed is explored. So, Django Unchained may not be a masterpiece but it’s certainly a very good film. I wouldn’t know where to put in in my imaginary list of favourite Tarantino films but it would certainly be above Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. Also, that blood… It’s truly a beautiful sight to see in these days of feeble CGI blood effects. Go see the film for them alone.