Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Western genre arrived pretty soon after his last film took us back to the Second World War. Inspired and drawn from the original Django movie in 1966 (and the unofficial series of films that followed), Jamie Foxx plays the titular character, a man who manages to break away from a life in slavery to seek revenge on the people responsible for selling both he and his wife into servitude.
He is assisted in his quest by Dr King Schultz, wonderfully played by Christoph Waltz who returns after stealing the show as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. And, once more, he is almost a reason for watching Django Unchained on his own, such is his ability combined with Tarantino’s words. He presents multiple layers do his character, happy to kill men for a bounty, yet grimaces at the inhumanity of slavery and the fighting they are forced to partake in by their white owners. An understandable position of course. On is the hunting down of bad men whereas the other is barbarism for the sake of barbarism.
There are further strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio as the villain of the piece, plantation owner Calvin Candie. He is in equal parts comically naive and intense, increasingly so as it becomes apparent to him just what Django and Schultz have in mind. In essence he is nought but a young boy in the body of a man, which as we all know is often a bad combination for other people.
Christoph Waltz, as Dr King Schultz, has fun with Tarantino’s dialogue. It’s hard to describe why it works without likening it to a sing song quality. The words flow with flair and ease. The combination between Tarantino and Waltz is one that I would very much like to see repeated post-Django, it’s a combination that just works.
Kerry Washington gets short shrift as Broomhilda, Django’s wife who remains in slavery at Candie’s plantation. Her role is limited primarily to screaming. It’s a shame her talents are so summarily wasted.
It wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without Samuel L Jackson, and here he plays Stephen, the head butler of Candie’s household. Stephen is a wily one, knowing more than he shows and a master manipulator of everyone around him. It flies in the face of the slave culture that surrounds him, and gives him opportunity to carve a position of power for himself – at the expense of the slaves around him. That should tell you all you need to know about him.
James Remar even gets a couple of decent supporting roles in a classic callback to the old days of cinema. You know, where you wouldn’t blink at seeing the same face in multiple roles. Plus the original Django, Franco Nero, gets a brief but very welcome cameo in a scene that contrasts the room’s opulence with the barbaric mandingo fight between two black slaves taking place there.
There are a vast swathe of supporting roles that are also worthy of mention. Jonah Hill, for one. He shows up in a comedic KKK scene that could have quite easily been cut from the film without affecting the narrative. But it’s one that offers a few laughs at the KKK’s expense and acts as a counterpoint to the violence that erupts elsewhere in the story.
Finally there is Jamie Foxx as Django. He is excellent, of course, gradually developing into the bounty hunter role under Schultz’s tutelage. It just so happens that he’s also a very good shot – no need to train him up on hitting glass bottles on a fence, he can do it naturally. That does save a lot of time. Good, too, because otherwise this would have potentially pushed the film over the three hour mark.
There are a few issues – a sequence involving Django’s capture and encounter with a bunch of badly accented Australian bounty hunters, among them Tarantino himself, is almost a sequence too far. On the whole though Django Unchained is a successful film in its own right while playing homage to the Western classics of the past while carving out its own niche in the genre.