Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★★

America, just prior to the Civil War. Winter. Two slave-traders are leading half-a-dozen manacled negro slaves through a large, unspecified section of Texas. As they move one night through a wood, they cross paths with a charming German fellow identified by the hokey model tooth affixed atop his carriage as a dentist. He greets the traders cordially but he's struggling to be understood, not because English is his second language but because his vocabulary is far wider than that of the simpler men here before him. It's not a chance passing either. This dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, utilising the same smiling menace that earned him an Oscar in Inglourious Basterds) is looking for these traders; specifically, one of the slaves in their inventory - Django (Jamie Foxx, Collateral). Attempting to buy Django, Schultz is met with short shrift and ordered at gunpoint to be on his way. Within a second, one trader lies dead and the other lies incapacitated under the bulk of his dead horse. Schultz unchains Django, instructs him to take the dead fellow's horse and coat, and pays the remaining trader for all that he's taken. He then tosses the manacle key to the other slaves and posits two choices to them, as he sees it: Carry their injured master thirty-plus miles to the nearest town for medical assistance, or unchain themselves, blow the injured slave-trader's head off with the gun Shultz has left them, bury the corpses and use the Pole Star to run for the free Northern States.

So begins Django Unchained, an oater set in the slave states of the Deep South and the latest rollercoaster by Quentin Tarantino. It's a fun picture, but I doubt it'll convert many QT sceptics; in fact it'll almost certainly reinforce those things people dislike about him, about which more later.

It transpires Dr. Schultz is actually a bounty hunter, and a lethal one at that. He's chasing down a murderous trio of brothers currently plying their trades as plantation overseers. He doesn't know what they look like but he knows they were employed at the plantation which sold Django, who can point them out for him. Schultz is no fan of the South's propensity for slavery though, and he offers Django a deal: help find and kill these brothers, and Schultz will rubber-stamp his freedom. Along the way, he'll also teach Django a thing or two about the macabre trade of bounty hunting, in which Django proves to be a natural.

Along the way, Schultz wonders aloud as to Django's plans once he's free. Well, as it happens, Django is a married man. He doesn't know where his wife (Kerry Washington, exposing every nerve) is - she was sold to another plantation - but he intends to locate her and buy her freedom. To this end, Schultz proposes a further deal: He'll honour Django's freedom as promised but if Django then stays on with him through the winter as his partner, taking on bounties and earning money, he'll help Django locate his wife.

In many ways Django Unchained could almost be considered a companion piece to Tarantino' s previous outing Inglourious Basterds, despite the wildly different global and historical settings. Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is longer than need be, and like Inglourious Basterds that is because QT treats each scene as a contained mini-movie all of its own, fleshed out and deepened for heightened comic or dramatic effect as characters go about the mundane or deliver rambling shaggy-dog stories. Not every scene is entirely necessary either, a trait typical of Quentin Tarantino; whether that's a flaw or an outright treat depends entirely on your appreciation of that element of his writing. Personally, I love Tarantino's writer's voice but some may well lament the leaner 90-minute film hiding somewhere within the sojourns and speeches of Django Unchained, with some justification.

Christoph Waltz's turn as the deadly Schultz is the standout performance of the movie, but performances throughout are delivered with lashings of both mischief and panache, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio as "Monsieur" Calvin Candie, the horrifying owner of the "Candyland" plantation currently holding the ownership deeds on Django's wife, and Samuel L. Jackson as the equally monstrous Stephen, Candie's elderly head house slave, a man who has utterly abandoned his culture and the torment of his people in return for a few material trappings. Don Johnson is grotesquely hilarious as a strutting, peacock-like Tennessee dandy and plantation owner, and James Remar (Dexter), Jonah Hill (Superbad), John Jarratt (Wolf Creek) and Michael Parks (Kill Bill) all delight in cameo roles. Quentin himself makes a cameo as usual and, as usual, he's not as charming as he probably thinks he is, but he's also not as bad as many think he is, either. There's even a quick cameo from Franco Nero, the titular antihero of Django, the 1966 spaghetti western classic by Sergio Corbucci (that's not the only nod back to the first Django movie; the logo is presented in the same font as the original, and the theme song is that of the Corbucci film too).

Django Unchained features incredible levels of bloodshed; one particular gunfight is the most blood-soaked scene I've witnessed in a movie since those elevator doors opened in The Shining. It also features liberal use of what guilty white folks tend to refer to as "The 'N'-word", uttered literally hundreds of times from first scene to last. However, the gore has an overexaggerated, cartoon quality; heads explode upon impact like detonated watermelons to a gloopy, "BLAAAPP!" sound, the blood itself translucent, syrupy and intentionally unrealistic. And if a tale is set against the backdrop of slavery in the 19th century deep South, you're going to hear the word "nigger" in that tale. Often. Be assured though that just as Inglourious Basterds was a revenge fantasy of the downtrodden Jewish war refugees over the stupidly evil Nazis, this is a tale of empowerment of the enslaved black man over his sadistic, pig-ignorant white overseers.

If you like Tarantino, you'll probably like Django Unchained. If you like Westerns, you'll probably like Django Unchained. If, like me, you're an admirer of both Tarantino AND westerns, this is a no-brainer.

I'd like to have seen Django pull a Gatling gun out of a coffin, though.