Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson
How long is Django Unchained? 165 minutes.
What is Django Unchained rated? R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
An endlessly entertaining adventure from the master.
Tarantino has been accused, almost ad nauseum, of exerting too much of his considerable skill as a filmmaker imitating other directors and not enough on making solid films which stand by themselves. While his first two films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) are indisputable masterpieces, Tarantino began rubbing critics and audiences the wrong way with films like Jackie Brown, Death Proof and, most notably, Inglourious Basterds for his almost fetishistic obsession with homage to other filmmaking styles. Taken as a whole, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 is an exception, both a tribute to Tarantino’s beloved kung fu movies, but also an emotionally demanding story of revenge and redemption.
Now, with Django Unchained, Tarantino delivers his most fully-developed and distinctive film since Pulp Fiction. For years, Tarantino has infused the conventions of the Western genre into his writing, inserting Mexican standoffs, dishonest lawmen and redeemed gunslingers into many of his scripts. Django is Tarantino’s first time taking on the genre in its entirety, though the film could more accurately be called a “Southern” since much of the action takes place in the pre-Civil War South. With his new film, Tarantino has found the perfect style of filmmaking to complement the story he wants to tell, neither ever overshadowing the other.
Our story takes place just two years before the war between the North and the South breaks out. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slave traders not for altruistic purposes (though he does abhor slavery), but so Django can help him identify the three men whose bounty he is so eager to collect. As an incentive to convince Django to aid him in his quest, Schultz promises to give Django his freedom after they have killed the Brittle brothers. Django agrees and the two men set off together riding side-by-side, a sight unfathomable at the time.
When Schultz and Django track the brothers down to a plantation in Tennessee, Django wastes no time exacting revenge on the men who whipped him and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), nearly to death. After barely escaping with their lives, Schultz, a man of his word, grants Django his freedom. Django decides that “killing white people and getting paid for it” isn’t the worst occupation in the world for a newly freed man. Together, the pair begins traversing the country collecting bounties for taking out “bad men.”
After a time, their relationship blooms into a friendship, enough so that Django feels comfortable confiding in Schultz about how much he misses his wife and wishes he could find her and buy her freedom. After some research, Schultz is able to track her down to a plantation called Candyland, owned by the notorious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man whose frightening reputation precedes him. In order to rescue Broomhilda, Schultz and Django attempt to gain Candie’s confidence by pretending to share his predilection for Mandingo fighting (think dog fighting but with slaves). Their cover is almost impenetrable until they cross paths with Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s oldest and most trusted slave, who immediately knows something isn’t quite right.
Django Unchained may be a new high point in Tarantino’s career. Not only is it endlessly entertaining, it is his most emotionally raw film to date. Tarantino has made no secrets about his love for Black culture. From the Blaxploitation films of the 70s to the music of the Wu-Tang Clan, Tarantino shows obvious respect for the experience of African Americans in this country. (It’s no coincidence Waltz’s character is named Dr. King.) For Tarantino to address the brutal and disgusting history of slavery so honestly is uncomfortable for the audience to watch, but he sees it as something that must be done. His hatred for his villains is palpable and the justice his heroes dole out is almost cathartic.
Unlike his other films, Tarantino very subtly fills Django with references to the films which inspired him. From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Unforgiven, Django is bursting with winks and nods that are almost imperceptible. This makes the overall experience so much more rewarding for the viewer because the clues are there, sometimes hidden in the background, but never distracting from the story. Tarantino manages to make a quintessential Tarantino film, but one whose paeans are dialed down from an 11.
The acting is some of the best of Tarantino’s entire oeuvre. Foxx is terrific as a man whose bloodlust is only matched by his love for his wife. Waltz, following his Oscar-winning role in Inglourious Basterds, gives perhaps the film’s most understated performance, allowing Schultz’s emotions to play out in silences instead of merely through dialogue. DiCaprio is fantastic as the almost inhuman Candie, proving once again why he is a movie star. The real gem, though, is Jackson as Stephen, a character so loathsome that audiences will want to throw their snacks at the screen any time his face appears.
Django Unchained proves that Tarantino really is the master filmmaker his legions of loyal fans have always praised him for being. With a story so deeply personal, he is able to use his artistic genius to produce a film whose style and substance is in perfect balance.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”