We review Django Unchained – Overlong but delivers what it promises!

Despite a sterling reputation, Quentin Tarantino isn’t the most consistent writer-director. Leaping around between genres, and typically juggling large casts, his experimental work is always interesting… but not always satisfying. Django Unchained fortunately demonstrates the filmmaker on form. A tad overlong, prone to obvious fan service moments and suffering from jarring tonal shifts, this Spaghetti Western-Blaxploitation-Revenge-Actioner (phew!) is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Unlike Tarantino’s last effort, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained delivers what it promises – in spades!

Starting out like a conventional Western before developing a distinct Southern flavour, Django Unchained follows the adventures of former slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Freed by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django becomes Schultz’s partner. It turns out that Django is a natural at “killing white people’, although his ultimate goal is to find and rescue his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington), who has become the property of brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

An instant plus for Django Unchained is the fact that the film’s heroes are easy to rally behind. This is in stark contrast to Inglourious Basterds where, with the exception of maybe 2 characters, the entire cast was a brutal, relentlessly unlikeable lot. Whether that was intentional on Tarantino’s part or not (I suspect it was), if every character is despicable, there’s nothing to get you emotionally invested in the film.

Fortunately though, Schultz is an erudite, eloquent man who, despite his choice of career, is actually quite principled, particularly around the issue of slavery – quite a contrast to Waltz’s slimy character in Basterds. Foxx’s Django, meanwhile, is pure badass. This said, he’s not ice-cold either. He frequently daydreams about being reunited with his wife. And there are some wonderful moments as Django embraces the opportunities his “freeman” status affords him. A particular highlight is the first time he’s allowed to choose his own clothes for an undercover mission. Django is tough and resourceful, but the audience is still permitted to laugh at him.

All this said, Django Unchained isn’t the easiest film to watch. Even if you aren’t American it produces some very complicated feelings in the viewer given that the film combines overblown escapism with an awful, dehumanising slice of US history.

On the one hand you have female servants being stripped at the dinner table to show guests their whip scars, or male slaves being torn apart by dogs when they’re not being forced to fight to the death. On the other hand you have an extended sequence in which Klu Klux Klan forerunners complain about the design of their hoods. And then there’s the cartoonish violence. Django Unchained is violent to the point of ridiculousness. Every bullet produces an explosion of blood and entrails.

Not that Django Unchained ever positions itself as a historically accurate tale, but this constant seesaw between aspects you can’t take seriously and others that are incredibly serious does feel odd at times.

Django Unchained also isn’t without other odd, unnecessary moments. Tarantino himself pops up with a dubious Australian accent, and there’s an extended cameo by Franco Nero – the original Django – that adds nothing to the film but fan service.

The film’s biggest problem though is that ultimately it runs too long. Once certain charismatic characters are removed from the action, a good chunk of energy evaporates from the film… and with it, audience interest. With 20-30 minutes still to go, you start to feel the movie’s 165-minute running time for really the first time.

Still, there’s plenty that makes Django Unchained worth watching: an electric dinner table scene, a gratifying gun battle (or should that be massacre?) and fearless performances by DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson as the film’s main villains.

Although it’s Waltz who has scored Best Supporting Actor awards love, Jackson’s role as Stephen, Candie’s head house slave, is just as deserving of an Oscar nomination. It’s instantly one of the actor’s greatest roles, not to mention one of the most odious bad guys to grace the screen in a long time – sycophantic, sly and relentlessly cruel. There’s a lot going on behind Stephen’s doddery exterior, and Jackson takes the character to some very dark places.

In the end, Django Unchained is massively entertaining despite its flaws. This 5-time Oscar nominee more than makes up for Inglourious Basterds (as you may have guessed, I wasn’t a fan). It’s controversial. It’s fun. And if you can take the liberal splattering of gore and the n-word, it’s totally worthwhile.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kervyn-Cloete/610830836 Kervyn Cloete

    Mini review/Second opinion thing:

    As a self proclaimed Tarantino fanboy, I loved Inglourious Basterds to death, It was, in my opinion, Tarantino’s best work. I never had Noelle’s issue with likeable characters, as I found something in all of them to enjoy. It was technically brilliant and incredibly well acted, with easily one of the most tense scenes put on screen in the last few decades (though I think No Country For Old Men’s “I can’t flip it for you” scene still pips it at the post).

    Django blew all of that out of the water. And there’s one main reason for that: Fun. I found myself laughing my arse off from start to finish. Which is incredibly odd when you have scenes of men nearly ripping each other’s limbs off for the twisted pleasures of others. But yet, through Tarantino’s voodoo, that’s exactly what happened.

    I’m happy that Noelle mentioned Foxx, as I feel that his performance is getting overlooked by a lot of publications due to the prolific scenery chewing from Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson. But Foxx’s Django is a walking example of “Walk soft and carry a big stick”. His is a quiet sort of badassery, but it completely gets the job done and then some.

    I do also think that the film is about 20 mins too long. And it’s not as if those extra scenes need to be cut because they’re bad. No, in fact they’re quite good, they just do absolutely nothing to forward the movie. If a few of those scenes had been held back as DVD extras, I would have had no quarrel with that.

    With all that being said, I think I would have notched the rating up slightly to 4.5/5, just for being the most fun I’ve had at the cinema thus far this year.

    • mornelithe

      Absolutely agree Kervyn, I loved Inglourious Basterds as well, and Christoph Waltz’s performance in that…dare I say, was even better than this one (though he was exceptional in this film as well…probably my favorite actor right now).

      They’re clearly different movies, and I have to admit, I wasn’t all too certain Django Unchained would be a hit, but wow….it’s an excellent film. And as an American, I think if you’re going to make a Spaghetti Western about a slave, freed by a bounty hunter to assist him… then to ignore the true realities of what life was like back then for slaves, it’s an injustice to the whole piece, the abhorrence of slavery, and doesn’t really give an honest depiction of those times.

      Some of the scenes were pretty rough, not going to lie, but it added to the overall feel of the movie, imo. It gave you a very very stark, and clear impression of what Django could face and thus the seriousness of it all. There may have been copious amounts of blood, but I think the ‘harder’ scenes, if you will, helped bring the movie back from being a cheesy gore-fest.

    • Noelle Adams

      There you have it. If you make a movie about baseball-batting Nazis and blowing up Hitler, I damn well expect it to be fun. Inglourious wasn’t. Django though is a rip-roaring good time.

      Two other side thoughts:

      1) Foxx really impressed me with his restraint. I think few actors could wear that ridiculous outfit and still be badass. I would love to see him play a superhero actually.

      2) Extra scenes; It particularly grated me that the camera kept lingering on the obviously female Candieland tracker with a bandana over her face. Yet the tease never develops into a pay-off.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kervyn-Cloete/610830836 Kervyn Cloete

        Yeah, that lady tracker was a bit of a weird one for me as well. Also, the entire sequence of Django prancing his horse around.

        • http://twitter.com/JChess1 Justin Hess

          You mean you didn’t recognize her from Death Proof. Granted, that’s not the point but I thought it being Zoe Bell would get a mention

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kervyn-Cloete/610830836 Kervyn Cloete

            Crap. No wonder she looked so familiar. I blame the layer of dirt she had on her.

          • Noelle Adams

            I only knew it was her after reading the Wiki article. Apparently it was supposed to be revealed that her character had no jaw.

      • http://twitter.com/blahsum James Francis

        The lady tracker is Zoe Bell, who does a lot of work with Tarantino. There was no lingering: you see her twice and the longest shot was of her with the stereoscope. I believe he added her to make a subtle point: that not only men are nasty pieces of work. Werner Herzog did similar things by adding characters missing teeth and such. It rattles our stereotypes.

        Think of it this way: maybe you weren’t supposed to regard her as a female, but foremost as another tracker. By her presence bothering you, you affirm Tarantino’s accusation that we are more comfortable with stereotypes than we’d like to admit.

    • http://twitter.com/blahsum James Francis

      Which scenes could be cut? I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, but every scene had a function. Tarantino was even nice and lean with the winter sequence – the closest he’ll come to making a montage.

      • http://www.themovies.co.za Kervyn Cloete

        Off the top of my head, the horse prancing scene is actually the only one that I think could have been afforded to be cut completely. The others though, like the Tarantino cameo scene, should definitely not be cut in their entirety. I just felt like the editing could have been a little bit tighter here and there to trim the little bit of fat there was down even further.

  • http://twitter.com/JChess1 Justin Hess

    I wrote a review for this film. This one’s better

  • http://twitter.com/the_krans Lourens Corleone

    I loved…LOVED Inglorious Basterds as well. Just sayin’

  • http://twitter.com/blahsum James Francis

    The first time I watched it, Django felt too long. But the second and third viewings have convinced me that this is a masterpiece. The nuance and subtlety is masterful. I don’t agree that Franco Nero’s appearance was fan service: you have to be pretty hardcore in obscure Italian westerns to even know about him or the original film. It was a tip of the hat, no doubt, but Franco’s cameo had a purpose. In fact, True Grit added more fan service than Django.

    Everyone was shocked with a certain death in the film. But it is key to remember that the story follows the route of the fairytale told by Waltz’s character: climb a mountain, kill the dragon, walk through hellfire. The scene with the Australians is where Foxx’s character reaches full circle. He exhibits all that he is and what Waltz’s character told him.

    Inglorious Basterds had too much stuff inbetween. There were too many plots, something that Tarantino is not all that good at handling. Jackie Brown had similar problems, but it at least didn’t drag for nearly three hours. (Okay, they were actually around the same length, but IB felt so much longer) This movie, though, fits perfectly. If you go back and really analyse it, taking in every scene, you’ll realise that nothing can be removed or replaced. Nothing could speed up the pace. Anything omitted would have stolen the film’s thunder.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, but this film deserves five stars. It fires on all cylinders and its actors gave some of the best performances of their lives. The scenes with Don Johnson are alone worth the admission price and every main actor took their talents to a new level.

    I’m an unabashed Tarantino fan, but Inglorious Basterds had me worried that he was losing his touch. Djano proved me so, so wrong. It is hands down one of Tarantino’s two best movies. You can guess what the other one is… Yes, I’ll put it in writing: Django Unchained is as good as Pulp Fiction.

    • http://www.themovies.co.za Kervyn Cloete

      Wrt to the events post the big death, I actually really like the unexpected direction of the story, as that big shootout is where most movies would have ended. I can understand some people’s problem with it though, as it does play against expectation, much like No Country For Old Men killing off what is supposed to be the lead character, off screen before the film’s final act. But that’s kind of why I like it. Having the cojones to do something different.

      And I’ve only seen the film once, but plan to watch it a whole lot more once it’s added to my Blu Ray collection, and I’m pretty sure that my love for it will increase with every viewing much like yours. Hell, in fact I’d be willing to give it 5 stars right now, despite my niggles with it, because sometimes everything else about a movie is just so damn good, that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

    • Noelle Adams

      You know, the more I think about the film, the more I tend to agree with you, James & Kervyn. I could probably have bumped up the review score by at least half a star. I’m definitely going to own the film when it’s on DVD, because dammit there is so much that makes it a rewatchable, soon-to-be acknowledged classic