Django Unchained – Review

Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.

Django Unchained

The first thing you ought to know about Django Unchained is that it’s a typical Tarantino film: epic, stylish, ridiculously violent, laden with in-jokes and movie references, and about as subtle as a sawn-off shotgun.

The second thing you ought to know is that it’s really damn good and you should go and see it.

There, that’s the short version. Those of you with attention spans that can’t handle anything longer than 140 characters can move on now. Everyone else, read on.

 

As I said, you know exactly what you’re getting with Quentin Tarantino, and in some regards, Django is very much more of the same. Like Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds before it, this is a long, sprawling tale of revenge in which the oppressed go on a journey to exact bloody retribution on their oppressors, and look really damn cool while they do it. It would be easy to dismiss Tarantino’s recent films as movie-nerd Mad Libs, where the basic plot stays the same and he just fills in the blanks with genre homages and geeky references. However, that flippant dismissal would ignore the fact that while Tarantino does generally only do one thing, he does something that despite imitators and parodies, remains distinctive and unusual – and in most cases (let’s pass over Death Proof for the time being), does it really well.

A lot of people focus on the ultra-violence and the arch, self-conscious ‘cool’ of Tarantino’s films and forget just how damn funny they often are, and this is one of his funniest. Much of Django, particularly in the first hour, is laugh-out-loud hilarious, particularly Christoph Waltz’s character’s rather memorable horse-drawn cart, and a scene with a group of incompetent proto-Klansmen that could have come straight out of Blazing Saddles.

At the same time, it’s also astonishingly brutal, with scenes I occasionally had to turn my head from. To Tarantino’s credit, he’s not a ‘torture porn’ director, closing in on violence for violence’s sake. A clear line is drawn between the torture suffered by Django and the other slaves, which is more implied than directly shown, and the gleeful, cathartic revenge exacted on those who deserve it.

The only thing splashed around with as much wild abandon as the gore is the racial slurs, which have been the subject of some controversy. Tarantino’s always been oddly fond of dropping the n-word into his scripts (Film.com even compiled this handy infographic, for those of who you who love a good chart), but far more than in his other films, it serves a genuine purpose here. It may not play the same way to all viewers, but to this middle-class white guy, the language remained shocking throughout, with the relentless repetition only serving to underline the central message that the comfort and wealth of white society was completely dependent on the exploitation and degradation of black people.

Yet despite the uncomfortable questions it raises, it remains terrifically entertaining, with fine performances from all of the cast. Jamie Foxx is strong in the title role, slowly developing into the hero he needs to be, while just as he did in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz steals every scene he’s in with wit and charisma. He won an Oscar for his role as Hans Landa, and it genuinely wouldn’t surprise me if he repeated the trick again this year. Meanwhile, Leonardo di Caprio keeps on getting better as he gets older and chubbier, and Samuel L Jackson puts in an astonishing turn as Stephen, a literal and figurative Uncle Tom who gets some of the best lines in the script.

If there is anything wrong with it, it’s that, much like The Hobbit (not to keep going on about that or anything), it could’ve done with a good editing – while it never drags, some scenes linger a little longer than they strictly need to, and the film’s structure gives it something of a premature climax, with what should be the final confrontation instead feeling a little more like an extended denouement. It’s also a shame that after the excellent female characters that took centre stage in Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof, this is very much a man’s world, with the female characters mostly serving as plot devices and background accessories.

These, however, are minor gripes. If you’re hoping for an accurate, nuanced depiction of the pre-Civil War South and the struggle for liberation, you won’t find it here. If you simply want to be entertained, though, this’ll do just fine.