If Quentin Tarantino has a favourite genre then it’s undoubtedly the western. This noted writer-director has long praised the creative trappings of the genre and through the years the sensibilities of his favourite movie setting have found their way into his other films. 20 years and six films later the director would finally treat his loyal fans to his own western, Django Unchained and it was a uniquely Tarantino experience.
With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
Following on from the massive success of Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino would make what is arguably his most epic and most mainstream project with Django Unchained. A heroic tale of love and revenge centred on a freed slave turned bounty hunter who desires to rescue his enslaved wife, Django Unchained was delivered to the big screen with plenty of passion and was a sure-fire hit. Watching it you get a picture of Tarantino’s youthful glee coming through here as he crafts a film that you believe his teenage self would have lined up to see in repetitive viewings. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s operatic. And it’s completely uncompromising. Tarantino held nothing back here and the result is one hell of an entertaining story of a hero’s rise to save the woman he loves the most in the world.
Taking on the central role of Django was one of Hollywood’s coolest cats in the form of Jamie Foxx and it was a real change of pace for the actor. Foxx had to switch his performance up here as he has to go from broken slave to bounty hunting hero in one hell of a dramatic story arc and it took everything of himself as a performer to pull it off. Foxx invests himself heavily into the character of Django and as the narrative moves forward we see him grow and develop and there are plenty of monumental changes to his character. As he becomes known as a skilled bounty hunter and ‘the fastest gun in the South’, Foxx’s Django transcends to one of the coolest heroes ever seen on the silver screen and Django’s got a real style that’s all his own. Added to Foxx’s performance is the passion he brings to Django for his wife Broomhilda, and this quest to return to the woman he loves really sets the screen alight.
Shaping Django into the cinema legend that audiences come to know in Django Unchained is Tarantino’s new muse Christoph Waltz and the actor takes a sharp dramatic turn here. Stepping out of his villainous turn as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, Waltz takes on the character of Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter who possesses a quick tongue and an even quicker trigger finger. Waltz is great as the mentor to Foxx’s Django and helps form him into this tough guy hero that fills the screen. He’s also an incredible scene-stealer and Waltz’ mastery of Tarantino’s dialogue and his incredible delivery of it pulls the audience deeper into the story. Above all else, you buy into the genuine trust and friendship that forms between these two men and they sure do go on one fantastic adventure together.
Every hero needs a villain and Django finds his in Calvin Candie, a brutal and sadistic slave owner who is played to chilling effect by a sensational Leonardo DiCaprio. As Candie, DiCaprio’s performance is shaped by both a burning racism and a narcissistic, self-indulgent superiority, which is then mixed together with a frightening temper that he levels on anyone who moves against him. Candie is a terrifically crafted bad guy and DiCaprio is utterly fearless in going to the extreme edge with this deranged villain. Candie makes a good match for both Django and Schultz and in one particularly brutal scene, DiCaprio unleashes a furious performance that grips audiences and rams home just how dangerous this racist is. To be effective as a bad guy is a very hard thing to do, but DiCaprio crafts a truly heinous villain here that really adds something to the finished film.
In terms of a viewing experience, Tarantino set out to give audiences his interpretation of the western, or what he called a ‘Southern’. As a film, Django Unchained is shaped by both the traditional Hollywood western such as Rio Bravo and The Searchers along with the Spaghetti Western tradition that followed with pictures like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Tarantino borrows from both subsets of the genre here, including Sergio Corbucci’s classic Spaghetti Western Django, starring Frank Nero as the title character, with Nero appearing here in a cameo appearance, and with Django Unchained you get a sense that we’re seeing Tarantino at his most inspired with this project. He uses everything that we know about the western from location to characters to action and then switches them up through his own stylized lens and the result is a film that is striking to look at and incredibly original. Tarantino’s love for the western genre shines through in every frame of Django Unchained and makes this genre and it’s heroes and stories relevant and cool for a modern audience once more.
Django Unchained wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without a good serving of violence and the director doesn’t hold back with it here. Whether it’s the brutal terror that is struck down upon the shackled slaves of the plantations, the shockingly gory Mandingo fights that inform Calvin Candie’s lusts or the outlandish splatter that is applied to the film’s full-on gun fights, blood is spilled in Django Unchained! While this is of-course a stylistic choice on the behalf of Tarantino, the violence of the film is an integral part of the film’s narrative, while at the same time causing a reaction from the audience. Django Unchained is extremely manic at times, and the violence on display pulls the audience further into the visceral experience that Tarantino is crafting for us here in his film.
But while Django Unchained is a thoroughly epic action-adventure-romance film, it’s also a film that does examine the context of slavery and the horrors that it inflicted on America’s past. Obviously, Tarantino examines slavery through his own grindhouse filter, and he is intent on building a movie that is designed to entertain, but he doesn’t shy away from the cruelty that defined the film’s time period. There are moments in Django Unchained that feature shocking brutality and a level of racism that will make your skin crawl and in essence, Tarantino flips the switch on the gentle South here. He drives home the idea of the evils of slavery, while at the same time crafting a hero that you want to root for and see win out in the end.
When it comes to sheer viewing experience, Django Unchained makes for one hell of a fun watch and Tarantino delivers home the heroics with Django’s bigger than life actions to put the wrong things right and ride off to freedom with the setting sun behind him. The fun never stops with Django Unchained and this is a film that demands repeat viewings.