Dan’s review published on Letterboxd:
My 5 Favourite Filmmakers Working Today -> HERE. I no longer have my kitchen as my background haha so if you like the content but not the aesthetic, check out a more recent video like My Favourite Films (of which Django is absolutely one) -> HERE. New video on my favourite TV shows soon!
Django Unchained tells the story of a slave (Django) and follows his rise to freedom and badassery. We see Django at the start of the film, traipsing through the hot Texas weather in barefoot, and over the course of the film we see him undergo a complete transformation from this timid, well, slave, to a ruthless, confident bounty hunter. Not only is this character arc super well written by Quentin Tarantino (who received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and his second win), but it’s also very convincingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who gives one of his best performances ever here.
You totally buy Django as a slave who has been conditioned to only speak when spoken to, and who lacks a proper education so says words wrong, or doesn’t quite understand certain social cues, but you also - if not even more so - buy him as a slaveowner-killing, fancy clothes-wearing, smooth-talking hero.
The costumes are something I want to talk about, as not only do they stand out visually (specifically the blue velour suit with the fancy white ruffles, and Calvin Candie’s extravagant, burgundy tux), but even more importantly than that, it informs character. The first time we see Django in his aforementioned royal blue get up, it’s a symbol for his freedom. He can wear what we wants, do what we wants, be what he wants. It’s one giant blue middle finger to everyone that ever oppressed him. A fuck you to every slaver that worked him to the bone. Then later on, when we see him in the burgundy outfit, it’s obviously a power move and a symbol that he’s taken Candie’s place, but it’s also a display of Django’s cheekiness and, as he says in the film, panache.
To be honest, there’s so much to talk about here that the thought of it is almost overwhelming. Normally when I review a film, I go through almost a tick list of departments and say whether they’re done well or not, and why. It’s safe to assume that a Tarantino film starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L Jackson does everything right. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is some of his finest ever, the soundtrack is filled wall to wall with bangers that elevate whatever scene they’re in, and in classic QT fashion the dialogue, storytelling, performances, visual motifs, style and direction are all top-notch. In this instance though, I’m less concerned with how it was made, and more concerned with how it made me feel.
The first time I saw this it had just released (I guess I would’ve been around 16) and I was staying over at my Dad’s. My Dad’s always been a busy guy and has never really had time for movies, so when he sat me down with a pirated copy on his laptop and said “you have to watch this”, I should’ve known what an all-timer I was about to watch. For those who don’t know, this was my favourite film for a solid couple of years, until I watched it too much and got kinda sick of it for a while. It’s still in my top 10 favourites today and remains my favourite Tarantino film. By the way, just gonna mention it quickly as I can already see the comments; I’m not condoning pirating movies. I’m a massive proponent of film as an industry and I firmly believe in supporting cinemas/filmmakers. I’ve gone to the cinema roughly once a week for the last few years.
It’s hard for me to even explain why this is one of my favourite movies, it just... is. It just has a certain swagger to it, an undeniable level of quality filmmaking, and a way of holding my attention from the first minute to the last. The film is nearly 3 hours long and honestly feels like a couple of hours at max. I suspect others may disagree with that as I’ve heard people before say that they don’t like the pacing, but for me it’s lightning fast. Yes it slows down at the dinner scene, but it’s supposed to. I liken it to the basement scene in Inglourious Basterds in that it’s long and deliberately drawn out, but the tension is so high that you sort of revel in it and almost don’t want it to end (except that you also do because you know it will inevitably lead to carnage).
While I’m likening it to the 2009 powerhouse, I’m still undecided as to which Christoph Waltz performance I enjoy more (he won an Academy Award for both! How mad is that? I really hope Tarantino has a place for Waltz in his final film). The obvious pick would be Hans Landa as he is arguably the best villain of that decade after Heath Ledger’s Joker, but the fact that he can become so notorious for that role and then disappear into another one is somehow even more impressive to me. When I think of Waltz I think of Dr. King Schultz. He can play evil methodical genius just as convincingly as he can play bewhiskered verbose mentor who completely overshadows Foxx. I kind of feel bad for Foxx in a way when it comes to this movie actually. As I said, he gives one of the best performances of his entire career, and yet he gets no credit for it because he’s somehow constantly outshone by Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson, who are all next level.
Kerry Washington gives a great performance too, as some of the things she’s asked to do are not at all easy. She also serves as Django’s long-term goal, so if we don’t care about her or them as husband and wife, then we don’t really care about the journey at all. It’s a love story to its core and I think this is the best example of Tarantino writing a romance (except for True Romance). The movie really has a lot of heart to match its style and abrasiveness.
The action in the movie is an absolute blast (no pun intended) and I was surprised to see that this is listed as a Drama and Western on Letterboxd and not Action. The shootout at Candieland is one of my favourite action scenes ever and utilises music, comedy, slow-mo in such inventive and effective ways. It’s so visceral and there’s been so much build up that you can’t help but cheer like DiCaprio does when watching the Mandingo fights.
I will say the bit after that (maybe the final 20 mins or so?) feels a bit tacked on, and I know Tarantino has given his reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that the shootout feels like the natural climax to this story. I also don’t like his cameo in that added 20-minute segment, partially because seeing a director in their own film always takes me out of it, partially because he uses a horrible Australian accent, and mostly because he gives himself permission to say racist shit AGAIN. I don’t think the film is racist and I think the constant use of the ‘N’ word is appropriate- no, necessary, but he doesn’t do himself any favours by casting himself in a role where he says things like “watch out Black” and then proceeds to taunt a bunch of slaves with a bundle of dynamite sticks.
Anyway, let’s get back to the good. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in a video before so apologies if you’ve already heard this, but I think my favourite shot in cinematic history is also in this film, and I’ll tell you the exact moment: after Django and Dr King Schultz successfully take out 2 of the 3 Brittle brothers, Django confronts the third and final one; Big John. Django shouts his name with all the authority he can muster and Big John turns around with this look of dread and fear on his face. Just then, and this is the shot, we get a slow push in on Django in his blue suit, and there are these gorgeous trees in the background framing him perfectly, and the epic orchestral music swells giving us the ultimate hero shot. Not only is it the aesthetics, or the audio, or the two combined, but it’s what the shot stands for. It’s Django finally taking the power off this despicable man, then administering revenge by whipping him over and over (including to the face which makes me cringe every time) before finally gathering all the other slaves and letting them watch as he puts a bullet in John Brittle’s chest. Oh yeah, and the line he delivers at this moment is also perfection: “I like the way you die, boy.” calling back to the time John said to Django “I like the way you beg, boy.” as Django pleaded with everything in him for him not to whip his wife.
Which brings me onto something I don’t think the film gets enough credit for, and that’s how real it can get when it has to. Slavery was an absolute fucking cancer and it was conducive to some of the most disgusting, tragic, violent acts humans have ever partaken in, and in order for us to find the pay off satisfying, Tarantino knows that we first have to see the horrible suffering. There are multiple scenes such as the dogs tearing the runaway slave to pieces, the scene with Broomhilda in the box, the scene with the Mandingo fighting, and more, where it’s honestly hard to stomach. But isn’t that great filmmaking? If a director can make you watch through a gap in your fingers, they’ve obviously done something right. That’s a sign that you care about the characters and that you’re having an emotional reaction to their art.
But as brutal as it can be, it can also be hilarious. The bag scene with Jonah Hill? Hilarious. Half of Big Daddy’s lines? Also hilarious. The bit where the Django shoots the guy’s dick off? HILARIOUS.
So yeah, if I were being objective I’d say Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds are better films, but Django is my personal favourite in QT’s filmography, and is one of my favourites ever.
If you haven’t seen it and you’re a fan of Tarantino, PLEASE SEEK IT OUT. I enjoyed it so much at age 16 that I subsequently went to CEX and bought about 20 other westerns (which I’d have previously considered my least favourite genre), and even proceeded to write my own western screenplay.
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