Django Unchained (2012)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L Jackson, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Christoph Waltz as Schulz and Jamie Foxx as Django in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

When Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992, I was totally blown away. The slick dialogue that sketched characters with a lifetime of backstory in just a few, perfectly pitched lines. The terrible betrayal at the heart of the plot. The suits. The ultra-violence.

Twenty-one years later and I've kinda lost faith in Quentin Tarantino. Death Proof was a self-indulgent sprawl and the idea of Inglorious Basterds disquieted me so much I've never seen it. But the trailer for Django Unchained looked exciting and hey, it's got Leonardo DiCaprio in it, so I felt it was time to give QT another chance.

A commenter on my review of Death Proof pointed out that because I'd clearly never experienced the 'fabulase nights of the drive inn in the 70's' [sic] I 'didn't get it'. This is more than fair. So I hold up my hands and admit that my knowledge of Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation movies and the entire Django tradition hovers somewhere between patchy and non-existent.

So while I could probably dissect The Cabin in the Woods frame by frame, I can't tell you which moments of this sprawling, brutal epic of a movie Tarantino has lifted wholesale from older works (aside from a hilarious Klu Klux Klan scene – not a phrase I ever thought I'd find myself using – that could have come straight from Blazing Saddles); where he pays homage to Sergio Leone and where to, um, some old obscure B-movie actor I've never heard of. (Although, speaking of obscure actors, Ted Neeley – aka Jesus Christ Superstar himself – is in it!)

Nor am I an expert in the history of slavery or the Civil War (I'm not sure having seen Gone with the Wind and North and South really counts), which does, all in all, leave me somewhat unqualified to review this film. But then again, you shouldn't need a PhD in American Studies to watch a movie, so for what it's worth, here are my thoughts.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained

The year is 1853. Slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by German bounty hunter Dr King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) in return for his help in tracking down three wanted men. Taking to the profession like a duck to water, Django becomes Schulz's partner, on the proviso that after a winter of working together, Schulz will help him find his missing slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). But when they discover that she has been bought by notoriously ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), they realise they're going to need a bigger plan...

As a piece of cinema, Django Unchained takes some beating. At heart it's a touching 'unlikely buddy' movie, the partnership of elegant, articulate, progressive, pragmatic, cold-blooded contract killer Schulz with passionate, fiery, single-minded man of action Django as pleasing as that of Butch and Sundance.

The dialogue crackles with wit, the plot canters on like a horse across the desert and the performances are marvellous (Tarantino's intrusive cameo excluded), particularly from Waltz, who's a delight from start to finish, and DiCaprio, who clearly relishes his role as the psychopathic Francophile Southern dandy Candie and whose scenery-masticating antics steal the show in the good ol' baddie style of Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham. The film is long (at 165 minutes, it makes Les Misérables look like an episode of Corrie) but doesn't feel it, each episode pushing us forward towards the ultimate, inevitable, bloody climax.

Samuel L Jackson as Stephen and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda in Django Unchained

Because, of course, the film is bloody. Brutal, vicious, uncompromising and tough. It pulls no punches in highlighting the sickening horrors of the slave trade, the vile treatment slaves – human property – could receive at the hands of their owners, and the discomforting way in which some slaves colluded in this mistreatment (Samuel L Jackson's portrayal of Candie's loyal old retainer Stephen is both fascinating and horribly squirmy). And of course Django's revenge is equally no-holds-barred, his murderous violence justifiable in the context of the movie. Even fastidious Schulz, a stickler for the law, is forced to admit that only a bullet can solve a problem like Candie.

But while I enjoy seeing a bad guy having his head blown off as much as the next girl, in 'real life' I don't believe that the response to sickening violence and inhumanity is bullets and dynamite. And that's where films such as Django Unchained, Taken and the entire culture of rape revenge movies leave me feeling uncomfortable, because they're drawing attention to serious issues (slavery, sex trafficking and violence to women) yet suggest that the answer to the problem is to punish the perpetrators with more of the same.

Although in the end (and correct me if I'm showing my ignorance here) wasn't the slavery issue only resolved through 'America's bloodiest war', as the trailer for Spielberg's Lincoln proclaims? Watch this space for a compare and contrast in the next few weeks...

But enough of my guilt-ridden, apologetic soul-searching: is Django Unchained a Good Film? Is it exciting, compelling, moving, shocking? Did my stomach lurch, my lower lip wobble, my jaw drop? Yes sirree. But it's also surprisingly thought-provoking – and you might not like what it makes you think.

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