Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Django Unchained is an action western drama film released in 2012 and was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It is both a homage and a parody of spaghetti westerns such as the original 1966 Django that starred Franco Nero, who makes a cameo in this film. The film follows the story of a freed slave who works alongside a German bounty hunter in the Old West and pre-Civil War South to track down the owner of his wife in order to rescue her. The film stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and regular Tarantino cast member Samuel L Jackson. The film became Tarantino's most successful film to date with global takings in excess of $425 million as well as winning numerous awards including two Academy Awards. Critics were also impressed, although many were uncomfortable with the racist language used in the film as well as the depiction of slavery and its historical inaccuracy. Development of a possible sequel led to the eventual release of Tarantino's next film, which was another western, The Hateful Eight, in 2015.
What's it about?
Somewhere in Texas in 1858, slave traders Ace and Dicky Speck are trekking across country with a group of shackled black slaves. One night, they are approached by mild-mannered dentist Dr King Schultz who makes enquires as to purchasing one slave in particular called Django. After the exchange quickly turns violent, Schultz frees Django who is bemused by his new colleague and they quickly flee the scene, leaving the other slaves to deal with any survivors.
Django soon learns that Schultz is actually a bounty hunter, tracking down criminals and wanted fugitives in exchange for money. Schultz needs Django's help in identifying his latest targets - the three Brittle brothers - who were Django's previous owners together with Django's wife Broomhilda, sold to an unknown party. Django agrees to assist Schultz and quickly becomes adapt at the bounty hunter lifestyle. And before long, Django has vengeance on his mind - especially when he discovers that his wife is now owned by notorious plantation owner Calvin J. Candie.
Dr King Schultz
Calvin J. Candie
Broomhilda Von Shaft
Samuel L Jackson
Leonide 'Leo' Moguy
Butch Pooch / Ace Speck
Release Date (UK)
18th January, 2013
Best Supporting Actor (Waltz), Best Original Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing
What's to like?
There is a special place in my heart for spaghetti westerns which I enjoy far more than many of Hollywood's traditional gun-slinging output. They are more fun and action packed than the po-faced seriousness and drama of films like High Noon or Shane. Unsurprisingly, Tarantino was drawn to the subgenre and delivers a wonderful tribute to those trigger-happy films of yore with a film that is brutal in its depictions of violence and race in America - something that feels sadly even more relevant these days. It is a constant, almost overwhelming, stream of racist language and characters from the first shot to the very last but the film is a long road to redemption. The film makes no apology for its depiction of the slave industry which is far more disturbing than any of the bloody shootouts seen in the movie. But at least the film offers a very cool and capable hero in Foxx's softly-spoken bad-ass and provides plenty of politics to go with it. This might be Tarantino's first political film in that it has something to say instead of simply imitating the style of other films.
As quietly charismatic as Foxx is, the film really belongs to its supporting cast led by the superb Waltz who plays what I believe to be the most likeable character I've seen in any film for years. Charming, funny, intelligent and morally above his fellow men, Schultz is as memorable a character as QT has written since Jackson's Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Jackson, his fiercely loyal servant Stephen is arguably just as villainous as his boss - his glare at Django as he displays the welts on his wife's back is deliciously wicked and chilling, reminded you that Jackson can play the baddie as well as he can the hero. DiCaprio is also thoroughly evil and so very Southern as the plantation owner Candie, his behaviour and motives belying the sweetness of his name and manner. It's a shame that neither of them have as much screen-time as Waltz but in a film that nearly lasts three hours, that's not much of a disservice.
Most of all, I enjoyed how different this feels to other QT movies which are mostly set in a contemporary setting. But this feels like a proper western with muddy shanty towns and rickety saloons, epics vistas in the background and an authentic feeling of lawlessness necessary for these films. However, it never forgets its spaghetti western atmosphere with opening credits, orchestral soundtrack and even cameo appearances such as the aforementioned Nero all helped to make the film feel like a modern interpretation of those beloved cult classics. People complaining about the violence being too bloody or comical are missing the point - this isn't just some stylish tick from the director but an intentional choice, mimicking the same over-the-top levels of violence seen in the films Tarantino is paying tribute to. This film isn't an easy watch but it's a huge amount of fun, despite its running time and uncomfortable use of language.
- The scene where Calvin Candie smashes a glass with his hand on the table was not intended - DiCaprio accidentally destroyed a prop and started bleeding for real but remained in character and finished the scene. When Tarantino called "cut", the crew burst out into a standing ovation. It is this scene that appears in the finished film.
- Waltz was thrown from his horse while training for the role which necessitated that his early scenes involved him riding on a wagon instead of a horse. Foxx bought Waltz a present to make him feel better - a saddle with a seal belt.
- In one scene during the film, Dr Schultz says he wants to rename the mandingo fighter Eskimo Joe as Black Hercules. This was the nickname of actor Ken Norton who was the star of 1975's controversial period drama Mandingo about a slave trained to become a fighter.
- As well as original Django star Franco Nero making a cameo, the film also has cameos from long-time Tarantino associates Tom Savini (who plays one of the trackers) and Zoe Bell who plays the tracker with the bandana over her face. Her character was originally to have a much bigger part, revealing the bandana was used to cover a gruesome injury, back when Django Unchained was being considered as a two-part film.
What's not to like?
The film's barrage of racist language is certainly the first thing I would mention as it's pretty much inescapable. However, I don't believe that the use of the language itself is racist - Tarantino has written this dialogue as those characters and it not only fits with them but also the period of history the film is set in. The film works hard to distance itself from its racist characters such as the frankly hilarious scene involving Don Johnson's racist plantation owner hoping to lead a charge of torch-wielding thugs, only to be undone by an argument over the practicality of riding horses wearing poorly made hoods. And to be honest, the film is more disturbing depicting the brutality of the treatment of slaves rather than the ignorance of their owners. Seeing people getting whipped or shackled in chains is far more harrowing than seeing folks getting shot or blood spraying onto cotton in the fields.
The film also received a backlash from some critics for countless anachronisms but again, I feel that these are part of the film's appeal. Who cares if a certain type of rifle wasn't around in 1858 or a certain phrase, one usually associated with Samuel L Jackson, wasn't in use at that time? Such trivial matters didn't spoil the film for me - in fact, the scene that uses Rick Ross' 100 Black Coffins as opposed to some of Ennio Morricone's compositions felt wonderfully appropriate. Here was this character, representing generations of repressed people of colour, finally unleashed and delivering the justice he demands. My only wish is that Django had been unchained a little earlier in the film - for the most part, he feels capped as Schultz's apprentice until the final third when the training wheels come off and the film becomes one of the most bloody and unforgiving action films QT has produced since the first Kill Bill film. But unlike Uma Thurman slicing and dicing, I had no problem with Foxx blasting everyone to Kingdom Come. It was the pay-off the film needed and it felt more justified and satisfying.
Should I watch it?
Provocative, powerful and hugely entertaining, Django Unchained is a riotous blend of social commentary, bloody action and superb performances throughout together with the usual Tarantino tropes. It won't be for everyone and the exhaustive running time feels a touch excessive, in my opinion but I cannot deny the film's quality at every level. Is it as good as QT's best, Pulp Fiction? No but it's not far off and praise doesn't get much higher than that.
Great For: fans of Tarantino, African-American audiences, viewers looking for a challenging experience
Not So Great For: the easily offended, MAGA-hat wearing militias, anyone under the age of 18 and possibly a little older, TV censors
What else should I watch?
For a director with the sort of Hollywood clout Tarantino enjoys, his career has made the odd stumble every now and again. His first Blaxploitation tribute, Jackie Brown, didn't quite work for me and I would be lying if I said that his grindhouse slasher Death Proof was high on my list of priorities. But generally speaking, he has been the heralded director you all know and love. I can't say much about about Pulp Fiction than has been said already other than it remains his best film to date. And while he definitely isn't an indie director any more, his big budget efforts seem to retain the same levels of critical appreciation with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood securing an impressive ten nominations for Academy Awards as well as the sort of returns that has studio execs dreaming of a new mega yacht.
Contemporary westerns have spawned so many subgenres that it can be difficult to know where to start. If you're looking for an exaggerated action movie then Quentin's old buddy Robert Rodriguez can sort you out with both Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. More family-friendly fare can be found with the offbeat animation Rango while even Marvel have made their presence known with Logan, the film that finally saw Hugh Jackman hang up his Wolverine claws. Lastly, I'd also recommend No Country For Old Men which is a rather bleak and at times troubling neo-western by the Coen brothers but is a magnificent thriller enhanced by the chilling performance of Javier Bardem.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on February 18, 2021:
There is a degree of self-indulgence in his films, I'll agree. I'm not a hardcore fan of QT as I indicated in my article but the films of his I do like, I tend to enjoy quite a bit. Thanks for the recommendations as always, Pat.
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on February 14, 2021:
Other neo-westerns I'd recommend are Let Him Go, where Diane Lane and Kevin Costner battle to keep in touch with their grandson with a family the law won't even touch, and Wind River, where Elizabeth Olsen plays an FBI agent with limited resources as she investigates a death in reservation territory. I don't like Django Unchained as much as you do because Tarantino has a tendency to unnecessarily go long as he takes his affinity of grindhouse to epic lengths. The look and the acting are its strongest traits, but I'm usually glad when his films finally roll the closing credits.