Quentin Tarantino can be a bit of an acquired taste. His latest, Django Unchained, is typical of the common positives and negatives of his works, and while it may be one of his most nominated films to date, I do not believe it is his best work. Django Unchained is an enjoyable few hours of cinema, but has much that subtracts from the overall quality.
This is, as you would expect from Tarantino, a good plot, one that wraps you around its finger and keeps you interested for the running time as best that it can. It’s a simple enough story at its core, that of a man (Jamie Foxx) looking to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from an evil fate at the hands of a monster (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of a staunch ally (Christoph Waltz), a state of affairs lampshaded in the movie itself. Further to the directors mindset there is a degree of randomness to it, of barely connected set-piece leading into set-piece, at least for the first hour, but that does much to break up that first hour and 10 minutes or so, before we get into the meat and bones of the plot proper.
This is a long film. Too long really. The dragging can be felt from halfway and the sensation never really vanishes until the end. It isn’t some sub-plot or character that should have been cut, but a general lengthening of nearly every scene and situation beyond the required length, a few extra bits of dialogue or showmanship that isn’t needed. A common criticism of Tarantino is that he is in love with his own work and has trouble editing it down, and that flaw is on full display here. Just a lot of little slices and cuts could have been made. For example, Candie’s monologue on slave eugenics goes on a minute more than it should, as does the aftermath of the two bounty hunters indentify being revealed. A very long amount of time elapses from the initial introduction to Candie to the two heroes arriving at his plantation. The bag wearing racists argue over eye-holes for just a bit more than they should. Such a problem has a severe effect on the pace and enjoyment of the movie, and while Tarantino’s traditional strengths of dialogue and getting good performances cover it up, it still saps the energy of the production to see such a runaway running time.
Tarantino likes to shoot a lot of footage, and Django Unchained is another one of his movies with rumours of a five hour directors cut at some point. The problem is that some of the stuff cut out, in relation to things left in, seems rather important, and there the editing process has been lacklustre. I’ll discuss some more examples in a bit, but for now I’ll offer the ending, where a victorious Django performs a few dressage tricks on is horse to entertain his wife. This portion came out of nowhere, with literally nothing to explain or set it up. At no point in the movie did Django learn how to order a horse about in such a fashion. At no point was it shown that he had any experience with horses beyond the ordinary. At no point were we told that he and his wife had previously shared a fondness for such displays. This lack of back-up information simply makes the scene confusing, as you wonder if it has some special significance that we have not been privy too.
Then there is a character I see being called “Bandana Girl”. She appears as one of Candie’s goons, clearly a woman whose face is hidden behind a red bandana. The camera focuses prominently on her at several moments, she is seen looking at a picture of a small black child which is visually compared to Django and then she slips out, almost unnoticed, during the first gun fight in Candieland. Though we have had out attention drawn to this character in a major way at points, she being somewhat unique already due to her gender and the employment she finds herself in, nothing else is offered about her. She remains this odd and rather irritating enigma that Tarantino has deigned to set up, but never conclude or utilise in a substantial fashion. Who is she? What is her connection to Django, if any? Where did she go? Is she important at all, or is she just another glowing briefcase? If so, I deem it an unnecessary indulgence from the director. If not, it is another example of bad editing, of leaving in the framework for an important character and cutting everything of substance.
But of course, Django Unchained saves itself by having many memorable scenes, and that is precisely the kind of thing that makes Tarantino who he is. He knows how to craft individual scenes very well, create a memorable set-piece. I’ll name a few of many that caught the eye: the intro where Schultz guns down the slavers and takes off with Django, which did as much to bring the German into our consciousnesses as the opening 20 minutes of Inglorious Basterds did for Hans Landa. The telling of the Broomhilda myth, tying it in very easily to the rest of the story. The extended dinner sequence in “Candieland”, fraught with suspense and memorable dialogue. The brutal “Mandingo” fight in the bar, which effortlessly showed Candie for what he was. The barn scene where Django hangs from the rafters, defeated and at the mercy of some of the most vile creatures of recent cinema. The final showdown in Candieland, a great cathartic experience after the epic time it took to get there.
It is good that Django Unchained has such positives going for it, because there is, in terms of tempo and pacing, plenty going against it. The act progression seemed very strange to me. Act one would seem to be everything up to Django going after his wife, act two everything from there to the first shoot-out and act three everything from that point to the finale. Seeing the two arrive at Candieland, I was stunned to see that only half the movie had gone by (it seemed like more) when enough plot had passed to easily cover two complete acts. That moment certainly seemed to me like they were heading towards the end of a traditional Act Two, but that didn’t come for a while yet, and that second act is the main guilty party in the “dragged out” criticism. Too much of the movie gets packed in there, too many “moments”. The fact that a violent shoot-out, one with a very climactic feel to it, takes place at the end of that second act does not help matters (in fact, when the screen blacked out at the end of that fight, I half thought the movie had ended on a very downbeat moment, but was also admiring of that). Another half hour or so of material is then trotted out to keep the film going, and it is at that point that the padding went from curious to irritating. Another shoot-out is pain-staking led up to, one that takes place in the same spot. This is an amateur level of editing in my view, and betrays a filmmaker that struggles to shut out his personally prized ideas to the detriment of the overall flow of the movie. Me, I would have watched a two hour film of Django and Schultz being bounty hunters in the old west.
Getting into the acting side of things, there is only a handful of complaints I can actually make. Tarantino knows how to get great performances out of his actors, especially those, like Waltz, who he has worked with before. Even minor characters come away from this shining, with one glaring exception.
Jamie Foxx is a great actor, whom I have highly regarded ever since Collateral. He gets the chance to show off a decent range here, and his journey from incredulous slave to cowboy bad-ass is well presented at both ends of the spectrum. Foxx really makes you feel the anger, the hurt, the desperation in Django, an avatar for the repressed rage and rebellion of his entire race. Django shows good, if somewhat rapid, growth in this movie, as he gains confidence from his bounty-hunting activities and motivation from his search for his enslaved wife.
The speed of that is a bit of a problem all right, as Django’s natural skill at shooting and deception excuses a lot of mentoring scenes that you might have expected, which may be another case of Tarantino cutting stuff haphazardly. But Foxx still keeps you interested in the titular character and much like Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna in Inglorious Basterds, the quest for revenge from a hidden position is almost tangible. Foxx has more than just that though, and one of his best scenes is one where he is restrained and unable to speak. The right application of grunts and breathing can be more than enough, as Foxx demonstrates, to portray real fear and terror in a character.
The character that really sucked me in was King Schultz of course. I can only add to the praise given to Waltz, who gives us a mild-mannered gunslinger with a flair for the dramatic. If there is one thing that Waltz does well, it is the outward portrayal of confidence. Like Hans Landa, everything that Schultz says or does is supremely confident and the audience is never in any doubt of how capable he is. The way he talks, slowly explains things, lets the pieces comes together. The way he struts around, uncomprehending of the social faux pas of being seen with a slave.
It is more than that, and the core of humanity in Schultz, who is otherwise very cold and detached (such as when he calmly urges Django to shoot a man in front of his son) that makes him such a great character. Schultz, the outsider in the American south (which he proclaims with a certain pride near his characters conclusion) hates slavery and takes on the metaphorical role of the white man’s guilt. He’s a pretty accurate portrayal of refined German thinking on the practise in such a time period and his distaste for slavery is brilliantly illustrated by Waltz’ acting and Tarantino’s photography.
Schultz appears at first to be the atypical mentor archetype, but in truth he does little teaching, other than to just free Django and indicate that he is more than capable of making a life for himself. Django miraculously picks up the skills of gun play and acting without much help, so Schultz shouldn’t really be defined in such a mentor role. He’s an excellent character in his own right, a righteous man caught up in a quest he cannot resist. His death is strange moment, but somewhat fitting for a character unused to standing idly by and allowing evil to continue unabated.
This is as good a point as any to mention a rather fascinating interview where Tarantino discusses an apparent plot-hole in his movie, with his response to the criticism, if taken at face value, demonstrating his skill at creating great characters. Tarantino’s explanation for Schultz’ over elaborate plan to save Django’s wife, one that eventually costs him his life, is that Schultz is two things. One, he is a man obsessed with drama and excitement, as clearly illustrated in his very roundabout way of claiming the bounty on the Sherriff early on. Two, this leads him to make bad choices. The plan to save Broomhilda is a bad one, but Schultz, obsessed with doing it as dramatically as possible, can’t see that.
With this in mind, I can declare Schultz to be one of the most layered and interesting characters of recent times, a bad-ass righteous man with very believable and enthralling flaws. You can add a sense of pride to that list too, and it is that, along with his sense of moral riotousness, that leads to his death. Candie is a moron who gets the drop on him, and this stings at the drama-addicted Schultz. When combined with the sight of a black man being fed to the dogs and one last humiliating exercise in a handshake, Schultz is pushed to the point where death no longer concerns him, only reasserting his dominance.
In portraying such a character, Christoph Waltz deserves every commendation and accolade that may be thrown at him. The man is a pro, and one of the best actors of our time.
Then there is Candie himself, the southern aristocrat with a shallow French obsession. I’m not sure of DiCaprio has ever played an antagonist before (The Man In The Iron Mask I suppose?) but he seems at times a little uncomfortable in the role. It might be the ridiculous accent he is forced to put on, which is comical in parts. You half expect a round of “I say, I say” to come out of his mouth before every sentence. This is what the character is of course, but I wonder if the comicalness might have been better served if it was toned down just a tad. I just found the accent more distracting than anything.
Distracting from the performance that is, and it was good. But DiCaprio is a great actor, so that should be no surprise. He portrays a villain who is an utter child, a clownish buffoon with delusions of being far greater than he is. The bright clothes, the monologues, the obsession with money, it all adds up. Candie strikes me from the performance as a lazy, bored man, who turns to Mandingo fighting because it amuses him for both its violent aspect and the power trip it gives him. DiCaprio gives the audience good curiosity along with the boorish behaviour of other moments, of a man who is fascinated just by something as unique as a German and a free black man trying to buy their way into the fight business. His back and forth’s with his men, sister and Stephen were excellent all the way through. It was just the OTT accent that ruined it for me.
What saved it was the subtext of the Candie character. Being a spoiled, born into privilege white slave owner, who has never worked an honest day in his life, he constantly has to “win”. His slaves have to win their fights. The ones that don’t or run away have to die horrifically for his amusement. He cannot allow Schultz and Django to get one up on him, no matter how high the profit. He cannot allow Schultz to get one more verbal blow on him with the Dumas reference, so he has to force the German into a humiliating handshake exercise. He always, always has to have the upper hand, and it kills him in the end. DiCaprio plays a character that has the mentality of a seven year old, and he does it with his expected competence and skill.
Candie’s character is directly tied to that of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the villainous head house slave. That Stephen is the real villain of the movie is a brilliantly executed masterstroke and this might be Jackson’s best prominent performance in years. Stephen is an altogether great antagonist because he is so easy to hate. He has no redeeming characteristics at all. He’s cruel, he’s a kissass, and he’s a coward. But he is also so very entertaining. The back and forth between Jackson and DiCaprio is one of the movies best parts, the loyal toady going as far as he dares with his loving master.
Stephen is a character playing a role, just as Django plays a role. When the cavalcade pull up to the doors of Candieland, you see Stephen looking out at them blankly, and you understand that he is selecting which character to play, who to pick on, what to say to Candie to grease him up. He is intelligently deciding which of his manufactured poses to put on. He plays that role to a tee when it serves him, dropping into the scary master when alone with Broomhilda, or the vindictive villain when alone with Django in the barn. He drops the cane near the end, revealing his true character in the process as he nears what he knows is his final bow. His death is of the most satisfying kind because he has been such an unrepentant bastard, the lowest of the low as Django put it earlier when discussing Stephen’s position in the black community.
The best part of Stephen’s character though, as pointed out by a friend, is the all-together brief scene where he tells Candie what he knows about Schultz, Django and Broomhilda. Everything up to that point was of an old, beloved slave acting almost like a Shakespearian fool for his betwixted master. Then, in the library scene, it is the Stephen who is in control, calmly drinking a brandy, sitting first in the presence of his “master”, speaking in a commanding tone, laying it all out for the younger man and telling what to do. Stephen is suddenly in a position of dominance over Candie, a perverted father figure. We know this character has been in the frame all of Candie’s life and the reality becomes clear: Stephen is the power behind the throne at Candieland and DiCaprio is just his puppet. Through playing whatever role is best, Stephen has archived the god-like power of a white aristocrat in this place, to the extent that he can, essentially, tell his social better what to do. I loved that scene, because it told us everything we needed to really know about that relationship without telling us explicitly.
The other big flaw, briefly mentioned in line with cuts, is the lack of backstory given to the Django character and his wife. Their elopement and capture are given mere moments in a haze to fill in the blanks, and a lack of any real emotional connection in the characters is the result. Broomhilda (Washington) could have been replaced with a cardboard cut-out and a German speaking tape recorder and there would have been little difference. Washington is poor, little more than a rabbit in the headlights when it comes to emotional range. She’s an aspiration and motivation for other characters, just someone for them to bounce dialogue around. That’s disappointing, as Django Unchained lacks any female characters of real note because of it. Even her name is just a clumsy metaphor that has to be spelled out for the audience in very obvious, if somewhat entertaining, terms.
Who else is there? Laura Cayoutte does well as Candie’s devoted sister, though for someone who gets the note of being shot by Django at the end she really doesn’t do much to deserve his scorn. Quentin Tarantino himself has a bizarre cameo as an Australian minor, which is brief but amusing. I have no problems with a director putting himself in his own creation, and I found that sequence funny if a little slow-moving. James Remer gets few lines but a big presence playing two roles, that of a slaver early on and one of Candie’s security tough guys later. Don Johnson and Jonah Hill are great fun as bag wearing racists going after the bounty hunters, treated with all of the ridicule and scorn that groups like the KKK deserve. Most of these parts get just one or two moments in which to be prominent, but there is good stuff all round when they are on screen. The supporting cast does ably in that supporting job, as the wheel turns around Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson.
Visually, Django Unchained is a typical treat from Tarantino, who knows how to frame a scene well to his needs, whether it is the intimate surrounding of the Candieland dinner, (with the careful cutlery arrangement by the slaves or the smooth transition between white and black quarters) or the harsh open plains of the American west. Things like having Django wear a bright blue suit in the largely green background of a plantation are inspired choices as are more simple things like the rotting teeth of Candie, really visible only briefly. The grainy, old style filming technique that Tarantino favours is well suited to this kind of flick, and the camerawork for the action scenes is top notch.
This is a bloody film and it is a detriment towards the conclusion. Less is more and the one hundredth blood splatter from a six-shooter will have the audience yawning rather than being on the edge of the seats. It doesn’t matter if Tarantino tries to make it artsy by spraying the blood on white flowers, or humorous by showing the same pained man getting shot over and over, enough is enough sometimes. Never ending violence has diminishing returns, especially when it becomes as repetitive as it portrayed in Django Unchained. Gunfight, gunfight, gunfight and some black people getting bits ripped out of them to break it up. By the end, you’re glad when Django rigs Candieland to explode, because it means there are no more people to hit with the six-shooters so a stream of red can come bursting out of them. I’m no shrinking violet from gore, but I really think it better serves a film like this when used sparingly.
Some of the visual metaphors also fall a little flat. Django’s head in the frame of a noose early on for example, or the constant “visions” of his lost wife. Better is stuff like the naming of a slave D’Artagnan, which leads to a great bit of dialogue late on and the simple set up/payoff for sticks of dynamite in the scenes with the Australians. I can’t say I was much of a fan of the oft used slo-mo effect, which is not something I would ever have really noted Tarantino as using in his previous films, at least to this much of an extent.
The script is, naturally, amazing. Tarantino can write dialogue that would blow anyone away and this is another to be quoted from at length for the next few years. Sure conversations between characters might run on the long side, but the quality of the writing on display is one of the reasons why that is not such a cardinal sin as it would be for someone else. Schultz’ patient explaining of his various plots and plans, Django playing the role of a black slaver to a tee, the dinner scene with the skull monologue and my favourite, the final interplay between King and Candie which namedrops Alexandre Dumas, it all just ebbs and flows rather well. Tarantino’s continuing and clever use of different languages is also great at breaking things up and adding a bit of verbal colour to proceedings, be it French or German. It was one of the things that made Inglorious Basterds great and it continues here.
The word “nigger” and its derivatives are used a lot in this production, but I can’t say it bothered me given the plot and setting. Those adverse to the use of such a word will hate this movie certainly, but this is how it was. The derogatory nature of the term in this time period is a crucial part of the social set-up process and the way the slur is casually bandied about helps to ingratiate the audience into the feel of an 1858 universe. Perhaps people are really bothered by the larger controversy of such a stylised portrayal of the slavery issue, just as when Inglorious Basterds showed Nazi persecution of the Jewish race in such a unique form. I’m not black or American, so I don’t how well I can judge, but I can’t say that this bothered me either. Topics get exaggerated or overly-stylised portrayals all the time and I don’t think something like slavery should be deemed “off-limits”. This is not a blaxploitation movie, it has far too much intelligence and far too good a script for that. Django is not some throw away stereotype of a character.
Tarantino goes a bit further than he did in his last film with the music, with a greater integration of more modern stuff in the historical setting. It was not entirely to my tastes, especially a travelling montage set to a rap song. The rest is more reminiscent of an old western soundtrack with an emphasis on songs discussing the main characters themselves. Those work a lot better and are pretty catchy. The score in general is an acceptable accompaniment though it falls short of the great mix found in Inglorious Basterds.
As you would expect from Tarantino there are plenty of themes to discuss. The obvious one is, of course, freedom and what it means to be free. That freedom, the quest for it as signified by Django, is connected another theme, worth. Gaining freedom, as Django does, is meaningless as Django is still a black man in the southern United States, and still less than nothing. He first attempts to copy the garish outfits of the white people in power, but is ridiculed for it. Finding no worth in depicting himself as a free dandy, he dons more bounty-hunterish attire and dedicates himself to a new role that freedom has given him: “killing white folks” and finding his wife. Broomhilda also seeks freedom but has no wandering emancipator like Schultz to grant it to her. In keeping with the general weakness of female characters in this film, she has to have freedom granted to her. In that respect, Django and Broomhilda can be seen to represent different facets of the black race in America at the time. Django is the angry slave with hidden power, the kind that would, a few years after the period depicted, be marching through southern towns in blue uniforms. Broomhilda, whose efforts to escape her bondage are hopeless, is the more passive type of slave, who need powerful white men – like Schultz and Abraham Lincoln – to do the freeing for them.
Love is a thing that separates the protagonists and the antagonists here. Django’s undying love for his wife is what keeps him going through many trials and is what keeps Broomhilda alive through many punishments. People like Candie and Stephen lack any understanding of that emotion, and would not even expect it in members of the black race. Schultz see’s this obvious longing in Django and resolves to reunite the lovers as best he can, inspired by the obvious parallels with the Broomhilda myth from Wagner. I suppose, in line with his love of drama as previously discussed, it is something that he just cannot let get away from him: a chance to orchestrate the paths of his very own Siegfried and Brumhilda.
Then there is the theme of acting, of playing a character. We’ve already talked about the most obvious source of this in Stephen, whose true personality is kept hidden for the most private of moments and who has a much more acceptable act when in company. Django finds a hidden talent for deception through an “act” needing only the slightest of pushes from Schultz to recognise his innate ability. The scenes where he masquerades as a black slaver, speaking down to other black men and acting like the people he hates were excellent, and showed off the use of this theme very well. Django steps into the shoes of a vicious white slaver easily, having seen it from the other side so vividly. Schultz plays an act numerous times because he loves it, but Django is far more convincing. Schultz retains his same general cheeriness and confidence no matter what he says and does, but Django, with far more invested in the plots, really does become that which he despises most, all in a quest to prove his worth as a freeman and win the back the love and freedom of his wife. He also skilfully, and with little trouble, tricks the three Australian miners into not only freeing him but arming him near the films conclusion, showing comprehensively that he has outgrown any attachment he had to the non-mentor that was Schultz.
Then there is the approach to slavery by black and white, a running contrast throughout the running time of Django Unchained. From the moment one of the slavers in the opening scene demands Schultz stop talking to Django “like that” – like a person, as opposed to property – to the final comparison between a victorious Django and the fleeing “comfort” slaves of Candieland, we get this constant contrast. Schultz seems to be the only white character of note who abhors slavery even if he never really comes out and says it in explicit and vehement terms. But we only need to see him talk to Django like he is a man, break character to try and save the Mandingo fighter Candie is prepared to feed to dogs, or invoke the opinion of half-black writer Alexandre Dumas to see where his feelings truly lie. He is set against, at all turns, characters both black and white who treat the darker skinned peoples as little more than cattle. This is a frightening, at times uncomfortable, look at the relationship between races in America in the late 1850’s. There is no debate between abolitionist and anti-abolitionist here, no mention of differences to the north. This is pure slave country and, from the surroundings, you would think that it always will be. Django hates slavery, but seems to be so used to it at the start of the movie as to be somewhat broken. Healed throughout his adventure, by the end of it he is just as confident and assured as any white man, and is already passing on the example to other blacks. Characters like Stephen accept the system of slavery and try and manoeuvre themselves to the best position within it, Django seeks to break it (and succeeds).
Then there is the theme of happiness, connected to kindness, which is at the root of the characters of Candie and Stephen. Candie comes to hate Schultz, Django and Broomhilda and it isn’t just because they tried to trick him, or that they show him a lack of respect. It is, I think, because for all of his advantages – status, money, power of life and death over many beings – he does not have what Django and Broomhilda have. Candie has no love in his life, just bootlicking slaves and associates and a sister who he lavishes inappropriate affections on. When he hears the words “wife” come out of Stephen’s mouth as a revelation he explodes in anger. Even when he makes 12’000 dollars off the deal, he still isn’t happy as Django, Broomhilda and Schultz are still walking away with what they want, and happy to be so. He needs to win, he needs to feel superior, to make the heroes know that their happiness is not as good as what he has – even if, we all know, that is far more than Candie will ever have. He has never worked, never strived for anything like Django, so he has no empathy or kindness in him and this is what makes him a villain, albeit a secondary one.
Then there is Stephen, who hates Django, Schultz and Broomhilda just as much, maybe even more. He see’s Broomhilda keep trying to escape and it galls him because he is no longer in a position to want or achieve such a thing. He see’s Django on a horse in fine clothes and hates him because he is proving that a black man can be more than just a servant. He see’s Schultz make a fool out of his master – out of him – and hates him because he’s only doing it to free a relatively worthless piece of property. Django and Broomhilda are, whether they like it or not, making a mockery of Stephen’s place in the world. He has strived all his life to be in a position where he has a moderate level of comfort and private power, but he still has to put on the act of the lovable old black servant in public. Django doesn’t have to do that and has a pretty wife and powerful white friends to boot. Stephen can’t handle that, can’t bear to see a member of his race have more than he has in his supposed highest position, and so he conspires to bring Django and Broomhilda down, taking great glee in carting the titular character off to the mines while Schultz’ body is dumped unceremoniously nearby. When Candie is hit Stephen weeps over him, not because he really loves his master I think, but because he sees the entirety of his life’s work, a master he has spun plots and threads around to gain his position, taken down by those who look down on his position and aspirations. Django and his wife want only to escape this world so that they can be together. Schultz is happy to help them achieve that happiness, and throws away a fortune to see it happen. Stephen, see’s such actions and realises the limits of the dirtheap he has set himself up to rule but now finds himself confined upon.
Moving toward a conclusion, Django Unchained is another quality film from Quentin Tarantino, but it does not reach the heights of Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds. It has significant issues with its running time, its pace, its overuse of repetitive violence and the editing process that has allowed a dearth of back-story to supplement some confusing elements. But the acting is nearly all steller, the characters are deep and complex, the dialogue is engaging and enthralling, the soundtrack is decent, the filming method is great and it simply has, in Tarantino’s style, plenty of wonderful moments to watch over and over again. The positives easily outweigh the negatives and I would welcome any sort of extended cut that Tarantino would choose to release. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures).