Seeing as how I’m a huge fan of Westerns, Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino, it would be easy to see why I should, on paper, have loved Django Unchained. However, there are many things that work on paper and refuse all forms of coherence when brought kicking and screaming into life, although I’m still not sure whether Django is one of them.
Django Unchained tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is inducted into a life of bounty hunting in the years preceding the American Civil War. Schultz is concerned with killing bad guys and being paid for the bodies (so one wonders what he would make of the Reservoir Dogs) while Django wants to track down his wife. Schultz decides to help him because a) he granted Django his freedom and feels responsible for him, and b) Django’s wife is called Broomhilda, and it brings to mind the German myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde, and being a German himself, Schultz feels he must lend his aid. As far as character motivations go, Tarantino is stretching that one a bit far.
It turns out that Broomhilda has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fairly oily plantation owner in Mississippi, with a penchant for Mandingo fighting among his slaves. Schultz and Django hatch a plan to get her back, although I won’t sport with your intelligence as to what might happen next.
Much has been made of the almost constant use of the ‘n’ word, and while commentators seem divided over whether or not it’s appropriate for a white filmmaker to throw it around with such abandon, I think it matters not that it was a word in common usage at the time – no one needs to hear it that often. A lot has also been made of the racist overtones of the film – is it a white apology for slavery, as Tarantino states? Is it a racial slur against the slaves themselves? Or is it racist against white people? Considering the number of ‘classic’ Westerns that portray the Native Americans as conscience-less monsters, I’m hesitant to offer an answer since racism has existed at the heart of the Western for years. That’s not to say it’s right – just that Tarantino isn’t the first, and I doubt he’ll be that last. I don’t think I’m qualified to get into such weighty debates but I think it does prove a distraction in the film.
Another of my problems with the film is the characterisation. DiCaprio steals the film as Candie, but Samuel L. Jackson is just utterly incoherent as Candie’s slave, Stevens. Schultz is a marvellous character with some interesting little quirks, including introducing his horse along with himself, and I found myself warming to him far more than Django himself. It doesn’t help that I’ve never enjoyed any of Foxx’s performances, but in places his Django seems more like a cartoon character. I want my heroes to have flaws, but Django had so many flaws that I felt I was rooting for him purely because of what he’d been through. I want to root for my characters because they’re likeable, even if they’re total anti-heroes. I don’t want to root for them because I feel I have to. If I’m honest, I wasn’t even rooting for Django – more Broomhilda. Django feels too one-dimensional – the fact he turns out to be a crack shot with about five minutes of practice was another problem.
Beyond that, the music is spot-on, the costumes are wonderful and the sets feel almost painfully authentic. There are even lighter moments where Tarantino varies the tone – a particular segment featuring a prototype Ku Klux Klan ridicules the group most effectively, and several almost comic lines make me hope that Tarantino turns his hand to some form of comedy for his next outing. The potential for an amazing film is definitely there but as far as I can tell, that’s all it is – potential.
Yes, Django Unchained is violent and yes, it’s incredibly long (FAR too long, in my opinion) but I also thought that about some of Tarantino’s earlier films, and this is my ultimate dilemma. I disliked Death Proof when I first saw it, but after watching it again, I considered it to be a masterpiece. Therefore there exists the possibility that I might watch Django Unchained again and enjoy it in a way that I didn’t the first time.
So for now, I give it 3/5…but it may improve over time.