Django Unchained (2012)
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance.”
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Synopsis: With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
Moviemaking geek Quentin Tarantino continues his mission to apparently make at least one movie in every major genre with an expansive Western which can’t really pass itself off as a Spaghetti Western despite having the typically bloated running time of one of Leone’s epics. There’s something about Tarantino’s unshakeable belief that everything he does is cool, his overbearing self-indulgence, and his inability to see where the line between homage and rip-off lies that makes me want to dislike everything he does, but so far only the lamentable Deathproof and the interminable first Kill Bill movie have fallen below a surprisingly consistent standard. Django Unchained is inspired by the Django Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, but is a different animal entirely which, for once, isn’t a bad thing as I remember those Django movies, in which Franco Nero roamed the West dragging an empty coffin behind him, were pretty dull affairs.
Jamie Foxx, standing in for Will Smith who passed on the project, plays the title character, a slave in transit when the traders transporting him are ambushed by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in a role that would have stolen the movie had Leonardo Di Caprio not also been lurking in the wings), a bounty hunter in pursuit of the Brittle Brothers, whom Schultz knows Django can identify. Schultz is an entertaining and likeable character, played in winning fashion by Waltz, and the possessor of a code of morals which is inherited by Django, who ultimately becomes his protege following the successful capture of the Brittles.
Django has a wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he has been parted, so he and Schultz go in search of her. With a surprising lack of difficulty they track her down to a plantation known as Candyland, owned by the charming but megalomaniac Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). Although Tarantino is adept at filling his movies with explosive and graphic violence (blood spouts from the bodies that get in the way of Django’s bullets like geysers bursting forth from the ground), he’s also a writer who appears to get immense pleasure from creating memorable characters through the words he puts in their mouths. Candie is every inch the Southern gent, but you sense at all times the incipient madness beneath his exaggerated courtesy. While Tarantino’s dialogue borders on the verbose at times, Di Caprio dispenses his words with an instinctive sense of just how much weight he needs to give to each one to get the most out of them.
Candie’s home is the sun-kissed epitome of those grandiose Southern dwellings that put the likes of Tara in the shade. It’s lorded over by Stephen (an almost unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson), an ageing house slave who might look like Uncle Ben off of the rice box, but who has a heart as black as coal, in particular when it comes to strangers in his midst. And especially when one of those strangers is a freed slave with attitude. Stephen takes an immediate dislike to Schultz and Django, and is the only one to suspect that they are feigning an interest in purchasing a fighter in order to con Candie into selling Broomhilda at a knockdown price.
You can count the number of major Westerns made in the last decade on the fingers of one hand. I’m guessing the last was the Coens’ True Grit back in 2007 (Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t really count in my book), so any well-made addition to the genre is to be welcomed. Tarantino even manages to temper his usual flaws so that, despite a near three-hour running time, no individual scene seems to stretch out forever as they often have done in his past movies. Although the title invokes the memory of the 1960s Django movies, its Deep South setting and sub-plot regarding Mandingo fighting bring to mind the film Mandingo and the exploitation flicks that followed in its wake. Certainly, they’re the kind of movies to which Tarantino would be attracted, but he resists their more lurid aspects here.
Perhaps Django Unchained’s biggest weakness — and arguably Tarantino’s across his entire back-catalogue — is how poorly written his female characters are. There are really only two to speak of — Candie’s sister and Broomhilda — and neither of them play any major part in the story. In fact, you can probably find better written female characters in movies from the 1940s and 50s than you’ll find in this movie. Surprisingly, the only other under-written character is that of Django himself, which perhaps explains why Will Smith decided to pass. Foxx is no major presence anyway, but he fails to make any kind of impression in the lead role, and melts into the background when sharing the screen with Waltz and Di Caprio, both of whom are clearly having a ball, and who transform Django Unchained from a good movie to a great one.