By Marty Mulrooney
Django Unchained is a Western directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds). Set in America’s pre-Civil War Deep South – positioning the film as more of a ‘Southern’ – the film stars Jamie Foxx (Ray) as Django Freeman, a freed black slave who sets out to rescue his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from a cruel and deranged plantation owner named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Teaming up with German bounty hunter and ex-dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django embarks upon an epic journey frequently punctuated by Tarantinos’ trademark cartoon violence and dark humour.
Django (Foxx) starts the film chained to several other slaves as he is transported by the Speck brothers, who have bought him at auction. The weary group is soon intercepted and stopped in the dead of night by Dr. Schultz, who claims to be a German dentist looking for a man who was previously owned by the Brittle brothers. That man is Django – once this fact is established, Schultz’s true identity as a bounty hunter is quickly revealed when he shoots one brother dead and leaves the other trapped under his horse, left to the mercy of the freed slaves. The tone is set – as the second brother is glimpsed being shot and killed, gore splashes into the air unrealistically high like some gruesome water bomb.
Schultz makes Django an offer: if he will identify the three Brittle brothers so he can kill them, he will set him free with $75 in his pocket and a horse of his own. Things don’t exactly go to plan, but Django more than holds his own and the bounty is soon collected. Schultz and Django are set to part ways, but the former is impressed by the latter’s natural bounty hunting ability and is further intrigued when he learns that Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, similar to the name of a character in the most popular of all German legends. Another deal is made – the pair will work together through the winter, and then they will find and rescue Django’s wife.
This is a Western with a Tarantino twist – as expected the action is over-the-top and extremely violent but the focus is on strong dialogue and well-drawn characters. Django is mostly a strong silent type but Schultz is charismatic and utterly fascinating to watch. His guns only do half the talking. Leonardo DiCaprio, one of cinema’s most likeable leading men, has a great supporting role as the film’s brown-toothed antagonist Calvin J. Candie, a sadistic plantation owner who takes great pleasure in making his strongest slaves fight to the death (‘Mandingo’ fighting).
Django and Schultz infiltrate Candie’s plantation by posing as potential purchasers of a Mandingo fighter – they must feign indifference and even delight as black slaves are treated with unspeakable cruelty. It’s hard to stomach. At one point a slave who has tried to escape because he can’t take fighting any more is ripped apart by dogs. Samuel L. Jackson steals the entire show as the film’s most despicable character, Stephen, an elderly and extremely loyal black house slave who is treated almost like a white man by Candie and revels in the power he holds over his fellow slaves. He is a cruel and evil man who will do anything to maintain his position while those around him suffer.
Those looking to be offended will be – as a rule Tarantino doesn’t make light-hearted films and Django Unchained is no exception. The heightened violence is extremely bloody and certainly difficult to watch at times, but it could also be argued that by being so extreme it moves beyond realism into the realm of cartoon fantasy. The real offence will be taken by those expecting a historically accurate film. This is slavery shown in an extremely black-and-white fashion (pun intended). Candie and Stephen are painted so despicably – as is the horrifying world around them – that when the violence explodes on-screen you’ll either go with it or be overwhelmed with distaste.
It speaks volumes that the film’s most accomplished and taut scene takes place around a dinner table. Like Inglourious Basterds’ bar scene, Tarantino creates unbearable tension as much with what isn’t said as with what is. The pieces start to fall slowly into place and you know it isn’t going to end pretty. Jamie Foxx does a decent job but he is certainly no Clint Eastwood – he looks the part but he never truly embodies the role. Luckily, his isn’t the most important character despite the film’s title – his long silences facilitate career-best performances from the supporting cast. With a soundtrack that includes some bold contemporary choices that nonetheless always marry the onscreen action perfectly, Django Unchained is a three-hour movie that plays out in the space of an exhilarated heartbeat. It’s not quite the film Inglourious Basterds was before it – and it can be rather uneven at times – but Tarantino fans will lap it up.
8 OUT OF 10