A question I am sure everyone has asked themselves at least once in their life is “What do you get when you mix slavery, violence, and an effeminate yet sinister southern charmer as a villain?”. It is a perfectly reasonable question, so don’t act like it hasn’t crossed your mind before. Well, the answer is obviously the abomination unto the Lord that is “Wild Wild West”. In retrospect, the fact that this combination was actually a rather risky proposition for film studios is just an incredible testament to how bad of a film that was. Enter Quentin Tarantino and one of the most prolific ensemble casts imaginable, and all of the sudden we move from whatever Will Smith tried to do in 1999 to arguably the best modern Western of this century… Just as the prophecy foretold!
Tarantino films are always stylized and “Django” is no exception. Similar to the “Kill Bill” films, “Django Unchained” resembles a comic book or graphic novel. The film delivers the typical Tarantino-style bloodshed, intricate dialogue, and most notably an eclectic soundtrack of absolute bangers. From the opening credits, we hear a riveting theme song for Jamie Foxx’s Django, playing, complete with colorful text and emphatic whip-cracking that seemingly punctuate each verse, like a “Pow!” panel. The music adds so much personality to a film already bursting at the seams with dynamism.
What makes this film exceptional is not necessarily the messaging behind the story, but the unique characters and how they are depicted. Django, as a character, in comic book fashion, follows the typical path of comic book hero: forged by a tragic origin and fostered by an older mentor, all to overcome an antagonist that is antithetical to everything he represents. And while the route Django takes resembles many of the tropes that we are familiar with, his personality and style are all his own, resulting in a character that is far deeper than the film’s violent, revenge-driven premise would suggest.
He begins as a former slave fully embracing the idea of being paid to enact vengeance against white people, but when he is forced to present himself as a black slaver and an expert on Mandingo slave fighting, Django becomes an evil he never thought he would sink to in order to be the hero that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) needs him to be. He is wholly not heroic, often berating slaves and claiming to be “worse than any of these white boys”. Nevertheless, he commits to being a monster in order to be what the situation calls for, fully embracing the fabled “One in 10,000” designation that Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) bestows upon him. Django’s cerebral quality is what allows him to be so lethal with his gun, and the juxtaposition of his beginnings in the film to his conclusion display his capabilities as a chameleon, and skills beyond simple violence. In fact, it is his brain, not his gun, that is the ultimate reason for his triumph in the end.
The story is about Django and his journey, but Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz and DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie provide much of the flare along the way. It seems that many of the elements of Shultz as a character were written the way it was to incorporate Waltz into the film. You know the saying “They were born for this role”? Well, this role was likely born for him. The fact that he is a German character seemed like an unnecessary addition if not to just fully utilize Waltz’s unique language skills and make the white character more likable considering the era the story takes place within. I have no issue with Tarantino creating a role specifically for an actor, especially since Waltz won an Oscar in his film “Inglourious Basterds” a few years prior, but I should note that it does feel mildly forced, even if the final product is exceptional. Having said that, Shultz is a charming, albeit violent hero that often provides some of the cheekier moments with his exceptional wit. And his being German allows for a much more personal connection to form between him, Django, and Broomhilda. Waltz in the role is without question one of the most essential elements of making the film as revered as it is. And as Django’s gets a personal theme song can easily get stuck in your head, as it has with mine, Shultz also receives this treatment, which further solidifying the duo’s certified badassery.
Monsieur Calvin Candie is a lot of fun as a fictional antagonist. I am aware that there were many slave owners in history who resemble him and the violent racial atrocities he gleefully commits and my admiration for him as a character is not an endorsement of his or their actions. But as a fictional character, he has more charisma than any person on the face of the planet and draws all eyes to him like a magnet. For this role, DiCaprio strays into the unchartered waters of both a villain and a supporting character, in what is a rather unusual move for him, especially at this junction in his career. But, despite not being in his comfort zone, he absolutely thrives as the grandiose plantation owner, delivering superb monologues and displays of flamboyant pageantry worthy of regale in the annals of cinema history.
The only character who I feel like was underutilized was Broomhilda. Kerry Washington is a very talented actress but she is seemingly used as nothing more than a prop or a plot point to motivate Django and Shultz. In the brief instances of screen time she receives, she speaks dialogue in German and undergoes brutal torture, showcasing the potential to be a character of real depth and charisma. But alas, not enough time is given to her personally and she is delegated to throwing on a stoic face while every other (male) character exchanges bombastic edicts and white-hot lead. It would have been more satisfying to see her be a part of the ultimate resolution of the film, displaying some act of chemistry with Django himself, especially after she was freed, instead of just being an admiring onlooker and damsel in distress. Perhaps cut out some of Django’s and Shultz’s early work together to make time for this since Broomhilda is so important to the narrative.
Although “Django Unchained” is a simpler, more linear narrative than some of Tarantino’s other works, it is still a masterclass in filmmaking and storytelling. Like anything in life, it is objectively not perfect, but having room for improvement is just a badge we all must carry, and if that is really the sharpest criticism I can offer, then we can sleep easy tonight. If you are not a fan of violence or profanity in excess, then I can understand why you might feel drawn to his films, but there is no denying that he creates films that are uniquely his own. It is the personality of this film that separates it from other films of the genre. It cannot be replicated or counterfeited, and that is the legacy of this film.
I give “Django Unchained” a bounty of 9.0 out of 10
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 2 Hours and 45 Minutes