Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.
In the 1850s, a bounty hunter helps a freed slave who wants to rescue his wife…
What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino wrote the script, directed the film, and cast himself in the minor role of a man transporting slaves to a mining company. It’s a dreadful acting performance – easily Quentin’s worst in one of his own films. It features an Australian accent that veers from South African to cockney via no-sorry-that’s-actually-indecipherable.
* Django (Jamie Foxx) – the D is silent – is in chains when we first see him. After he’s bought by a man called Schultz, Django agrees to help him in exchange for his freedom. They spend a winter together hunting down bounties, then head to Mississippi to find Django’s enslaved wife… Foxx plays the role part naïve, part numb, which means Django is an oddly blank character. The true heart of the film arguably lies with…
* Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) travels across America seemingly as a dentist; his wagon even has a giant tooth on a spring rocking back and forth. However, he’s actually a successful bounty hunter. When we meet him he’s searching for the fugitive Brittle brothers and needs Django’s help. Schultz is German, and English is his second language, yet he’s as verbose and articulate as any Tarantino creation. He does a chunk of the talking in most scenes, and it’s a beguiling performance of charisma and moral ambiguity. (It won Waltz his second Oscar for playing a Tarantino character.) The film becomes noticeably less interesting after Schultz is killed.
* Sheriff Bill Sharp (Don Stroud) challenges Schultz and Django when they saunter into a town and flaunt its racist policies. Schultz shoots him dead with a concealed weapon (very steampunky, this, like something from Wild Wild West) then tells the local marshall, Gill Tatum (Tom Wopat), that Sharp was a wanted man. As an incident to show off Schultz’s job and commanding wits, it’s superb.
* Old Man Carrucan (Bruce Dern) is Django’s former owner, who we see in a flashback. He branded Django and his wife for trying to escape, then sold them separately.
* Broomhilda ‘Hildi’ von Shaft (Kerry Washington) is Django’s wife. She was once owned by a German family, hence her surname, but is now a slave on a plantation called Candyland. When Django and Schultz arrive to look for her, she’s been put in a hotbox – a half-buried metal crate left out in the searing sun – as a punishment.
* Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett (Don Johnson) is a slave-owning, plantation-owning, big-hat-owning Southern gentleman who is definitely Southern but certainly no gentleman. Schultz talks his way onto the plantation so he and Django can search for the Brittle brothers (MC Gainey, Cooper Huckabee and Doc Duhame).
* A member of the local Ku Klux Klan (Jonah Hill, credited as Bag Head #2) features in a silly scene where KKK twats argue over their homemade outfits.
* Leo Moguy (Dennis Christopher) is a lawyer who puts Schultz and Django in touch with an important character called…
* Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flamboyant, arrogant Francophile who runs a plantation, has lots of slaves and is fond of forcing the men to fight each other to the death. He’s also Hildi’s owner, so Schultz and Django attempt to con him into selling her to them… As talented as DiCaprio clearly is, he’s miscast here. The character is too young and not enough of a threat.
* Butch Pooch (James Remar, looking like Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy) is Candie’s bodyguard. As Django notes, he’s being rude by wearing his hat indoors. Remar also plays another small role in the film: Ace Speck, who owns Django as the story begins.
* Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero) is a slave-owner whose best man loses a staged fight with one of Candie’s slaves. When Vessepi talks to Django, there’s a hint he may have another name (see Connections).
* Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) is one of Candie’s sadistic henchmen.
* Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the head ‘house slave’ at Candyland, which gives him licence to boss other slaves about and have a crotchety grandfather vibe with Calvin. He’s an elderly man with white hair and a stick, and he instantly takes against Django. He soon rumbles his and Schultz’s plan.
* Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette) is Candie’s widowed sister. She’s only really in the story to justify why Hildi is working in the house rather than on the land, but is involved in two of the movie’s best moments: when she innocently points out that Hildi has been eyeing up Django; and her slapstick death during the action climax.
* Three employees of the LeQunt Dickey Mining Company (Michael Parks, Quentin Tarantino and John Jarratt) transport Django across country. He cons them into letting him free and then kills them. They’re Australian, for some reason.
Returning actors: Christoph Waltz had been in Inglourious Basterds. Samuel L Jackson gets Tarantino role number six. Zoe Bell (Death Proof), Michael Bowen (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn) have mute cameos as Candyland employees. Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills, Death Proof) appears again. Tarantino’s role is the sixth time he’s played one of his own characters.
Music: The rousing theme song is taken from the 1966 Italian film Django (see Connections). Incidental cues from movies such as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Last American Hero (1973) and Under Fire (1983) have been recycled. Various other pre-existing tunes are used too – Beethoven, Wagner, a lyrically apt track from the Italian film Lo chiamavano King (1971) – as well as songs written specifically for the film by artists such as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Rick Ross.
Time shifts and chapters: It’s the most orthodox structure of any Tarantino script. We follow one linear storyline in chronological order, and Django and/or Schultz are in almost every scene. There are brief flashbacks here and there, but they’re motivated cutaways rather than the movie telling its story out of sequence.
Connections: The lead character’s name is a reference to the Italian film Django (1966), a nihilistic Spaghetti Western that has spawned more than 30 sequels, rip-offs and homages. (One of them, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), actually featured Quentin Tarantino in an acting role.) Although he uses the alias Amerigo Vessepi, the eponymous character from the 1966 film cameos in Django Unchained played by original actor Franco Nero. Meanwhile, Hildi’s surname tells us that she and Django are ancestors of 1970s private detective John Shaft. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Bride climbed out of a grave belonging to ‘Paula Schultz’. Tarantino has said that Paula is the wife of Christoph Waltz’s Django Unchained character. According to her headstone, she lived until 1893 so presumably they’re separated by the time of this film. He never mentions her. And finally, in 2014 Jamie Foxx reprised his Django for a cameo in Seth McFarlane’s film A Million Ways To Die in the West.
Review: There’s a great line in Bill Bryson’s 2008 book on William Shakespeare where he’s talking about the Bard’s habit of shamelessly lifting plots and dialogue from other writers. “What Shakespeare did, of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness.” It rings true for Quentin Tarantino too, who has often used other films as a starting point for a project. But when you watch these movies – 1973’s Coffy, 1971’s Vanishing Point, 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards, 1966’s Django and many others – what’s often noticeable is how superior his resulting films are. They’re classier, more polished, more dynamic and more interesting. (As David Bowie put it once: it doesn’t matter who does something first. It’s who does it second that counts.) Part of this is down to budget, of course. Django Unchained cost $100 million to make. The 1966 Django looks like it cost about two-and-six. But while Tarantino often stands on the shoulders of averagely tall people, he always brings something new, something fresh. For Django Unchained, one such fresh element is that it’s a Western that technically isn’t a Western. It uses the tropes and clichés of the genre (horses! Guns! Standoffs! Crash-zooms! Glorious widescreen!), but the story is actually set in the Deep South before the American Civil War. And crucially it’s about a subject ignored by most Westerns: black Americans and slavery. Many people have lambasted this film for its paper-thin analysis. Slavery was a bad thing, it says, and slave owners were bastards. Well, yeah… But that’s like dismissing The Great Escape because it’s prioritises fun over philosophy. Speaking of which, this film is often a lot of fun. With a sense of humour so dry it’s parched, Django Unchained is basically a comedy. It does have some very serious elements – severe racism, the N-word used liberally, a slave-fighting subplot that comes out of left-field, torture, sadistic violence – but there’s also plenty of whimsy, gallows humour and actual jokes. The story is engaging and the characters, especially Shultz, are very watchable. But on the downside it’s too long with a number of superfluous scenes. The KKK members and the tracker characters, for example, feel like they’re going to be important but don’t go anywhere. The finale also lacks tension, descending into blood splashes, squib hits, slo-mo deaths and a huge body count. So Django Unchained might not have greatness, but it does have bags of distinction.
Eight bills of sale out of 10