By now, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with a Quentin Tarantino film. There will be blood, violence, swearing and snappy dialogue, it will probably be a bit too long, and there will be some cool (or at least, what Tarantino thinks is cool) music on the soundtrack. So it’s no surprise that Django Unchained has plenty of all of these things, some of which work, some of which don’t, but for the most part they do, and Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best film in a very long time.
Django is the name of Jamie Foxx’s slave, a man being marched across the country on a chain gang in 1858, when the men leading them meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, following his turn in Inglourious Basterds with another excellent performance) , who is interested in ‘acquiring’ Django. Although he is willing to negotiate a price with the men, he ultimately acquires Django by shooting one of them, while shooting the horse of the other, and taking Django away with him, leaving the surviving man to the mercy (or not) of the other slaves. Schultz tells Django that he is a bounty hunter, and needs Django’s help to track down the Brittle brothers, three men with a lucrative bounty on their heads. After they track the men down, Django tells Schultz that he is married, and is searching for his wife after they were split up because they tried to escape from their master together.
That leads Django and Schultz to CandieLand, home to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie, where Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is now a slave, working under the tyrannical eye of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), where they hope to secure the release of Broomhilda while posing as two men hoping to become involved in the Mandingo fighting business.
When I was younger, I was a huge fan of Tarantino’s work; his films were cool, violent and edgy, and as I was a teenager when they came out, the dialogue from his films was often quoted and his films, Pulp Fiction in particular, watched regularly. But I’ve gone off him recently, and from Kill Bill vol. 1 onwards, haven’t really enjoyed any of his films. I like Kill Bill vol. 2 better than the first, but rarely watch either; I had Death Proof on DVD but never watched it again after seeing it in the cinema (Planet Terror, the Robert Rodriguez half of their Grindhouse collaboration is much better); and Inglourious Basterds had a brilliant opening scene but lost me very quickly. I still believe that Reservoir Dogs is his greatest film (although you could argue that True Romance has his greatest script), but before seeing Django Unchained, I wondered if I could ever really enjoy a Tarantino film again.
But I did enjoy Django Unchained a lot more than I had expected to, although there are elements of it that I didn’t like, mainly because they are the things that are often very bothersome about Tarantino movies. The biggest problem is the length of the film; at around 2 hours and 45 minutes, it’s at least 30 minutes too long, and there are a few scenes that are either unnecessary, or could just be trimmed down (particularly the scene at the end featuring Tarantino with a laughably poor Australian accent). The music doesn’t really work either, with most of the songs (Tarantino doesn’t do scores) clashing with the period the film is set in. A score is supposed to compliment what is happening on screen, most of the songs Tarantino picks do the opposite.
Neither of those are huge problems; they affected my enjoyment of the film a little, but not enough to make me dislike the film. Two things that didn’t bother me about the film were the levels of violence and the frequency with which pretty much every character on screen says nigger. These are both things that Tarantino has been questioned extensively about in the past (and recently too, as his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy showed. Oh, and on that subject, I think Tarantino was talking out of his arse about the importance of his film in reference to slavery but that he was right to reject Guru-Murthy’s question about violence in his films because he’s been answering that question for 20 years, and I also think that Samuel L. Jackson was right to respond to that question about the ‘N-word’ in the way that he did too), but have never really bothered me. His films are almost always violent, but usually not quite as graphic as you think they are, and Django Unchained, while very bloody, is no more graphic than any of his previous films. His use of that word in his scripts has always been a more thorny subject, but he’s never written about nice people, the kind of people he writes about are not concerned about political correctness, they usually kill and rob people, and if you lived in that world you probably wouldn’t say ‘Actually, African-American is the polite way to describe black people’ very often. In Django Unchained, it feels somewhat redundant to complain about the frequency of its appearance in the script, because that is how people would have talked in that era. Black people were definitively treated as a lesser people, so it’s not like Calvin Candie wouldn’t use the word frequently when talking about slaves or Mandingos.
In fact, I think you can make a convincing case that Tarantino does a good job of using the word in this script; especially in the way Jackson’s abhorrent Stephen uses it. He’s in something like a position of power within Candie’s world; Candie is still his master, but he’s treated better than other slaves and has a power over them (and they are definitely terrified of him and what he is capable of), and he looks at Django with distain, incredulous that Django is being treated better than how even he thinks black people should be treated (for example, he can’t believe that Django is allowed to stay in Candie’s house).
Jackson’s performance stands out amongst the four leading men as the best in the film, although DiCaprio gives him a run for his money, portraying Calvin Candie with an omnipresent quiet menace that explodes in a furious rage when he realises the true nature of Django and Schultz’s plan. Waltz was, by far, the best thing about Inglorious Basterds, and he’s just as good in this film, while Jamie Foxx does good things with a character that feels slightly underwritten (Kerry Washington is also a good actress, but Broomhilda is definitely underwritten, leaving her with little to do other than be terrified and abused).
So for me, Django Unchained represents something of a return to form for Quentin Tarantino. It’s not his best film, but it is significantly better than anything he’s done since Jackie Brown, and while it’s too long, there are great performances to keep your interest throughout its hefty running time. This is not Tarantino at his best, but something close to his best is more than good enough.