Due to a wave of publicity & controversy, courted by director Quentin Tarantino’s tackling of an oft-avoided topic, slavery in the 19th century, Django Unchained is perhaps Tarantino’s most important feature yet. But it is also arguably the film in which he has had the most to lose. When the media caught wind of Tarantino’s involvement in a film set against the backdrop of the Deep South, in the time of slavery, many could not help but wince. Would he do the atrocities justice, or would his portrayal be insensitive to the memory of those who had lived in the dark days of slavery? Many critics anticipated the latter; yet they were wrong.
This is because even though the film in many ways does not show enough to truly express the horror that faced African-American slaves, it does not need to. This is since the film is essentially not about slavery; much in the sense Inglourious Basterds was not about the horrors of the death camps. Instead, the two films referenced above focus more predominately on revenge as the key motivator, the backdrop in both cases being only a tool by which the narrative conveys its mediations on this theme.
In an intimate scene at the heart of the film between Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Schultz, and Django, played by the wonderful Jamie Foxx, they discuss the German fairy tale of Brynhildr, the woman in the castle. This allegory, which is drawn throughout, best highlights the real nature of the film, as a fantasy, a fiction to which any real debate on the topic of slavery is purely incidental to the plot. Whilst many would argue that this is a bad thing, and that it is perhaps insensitive or callous of Tarantino to invoke real historical tragedies such as this, in an altered reality, they would be wrong. This is because what Tarantino has presented here is a wish fulfilment, a revenge epic; it is history rewritten by a generation that have surpassed their predecessors in morality and good nature; thereby showing how far we have come in many respects from the darkest days of slavery in the 19th century. This is perhaps best shown by our mouthpiece and the character to which we best relate throughout, Django, the freed slave and revelatory force, a character who eradicates all signs of the out-dated, grotesque attitudes towards race, as the film progresses.
Considering the performances in isolation, the film has been a major success in gathering all the right players. The central cast, for the most part, treads the line perfectly throughout the film, giving incredible performances that combine just the right amount of intensity and humour. The best performances in the film are arguably that of Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, as Calvin Candie, the slave owner who runs Candieland, a large plantation, which takes the form for the majority of the film as its main location. On first hearing DiCaprio was cast as the abhorrent slave owner, it was hard to imagine him quite being suitable for the villainous role, though after only two minutes onscreen, he has our attention, our curiosity, and our disgust. In contrast to this, Jamie Foxx displays in his performance the ability to be sympathetic, as well as incredibly entertaining onscreen, charming, and resourceful in spite of his cruel surroundings. Yet this is not to say that the performances given by Waltz and Kerry Washington aren’t also memorable; in fact, they are both incredibly distinct. Though in comparison with the performances of both Foxx & DiCaprio, they are arguably overshadowed.
Another star within the film that cannot go without being mentioned, however, is the violence, an expected feature of any Tarantino picture, ever since his debut with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. In Django Unchained this feature is on display in all its graphic glory, the film’s finale being a bloodbath unsuitable for those easily offended. This violence nevertheless is justified, as it only seeks to reinforce that what you are watching is a fantasy, a spectacle and not designed to accurately portray the events that surrounded the practicing, as well as the abolishment, of the slave trade, in the 19th Century. Some may be repulsed by this, but others however, fans of Tarantino, will be amazed at what lengths he goes to within the film, the movie citing some of his most twisted moments yet on screen.
In spite of this, the movie, for all its intensity and gore, is on the other hand also incredibly funny, the comic turns of Jonah Hill & the rest of the “Regulators”, a precursor to the KKK, being one of the many highlights, as the portrayals make a mockery of these individuals, and their bigoted attitudes. Tarantino clearly knows how to make an audience laugh, and in this case puts it to use in order to expose the preposterous nature of these self-appointed men of importance.
However, for all the film does get right, including, for example, the performances, the dialogue, and the wit, the movie fails in one major aspect, its length, with the feature totalling three hours overall. This is one of its weaknesses, as in between the brilliant comedic set pieces, and splashes of gore, we are greeted with excess material, which although entertaining, perhaps should have been cut to stop the film meandering. This additional material arguably makes the film feel more like a series of set pieces, rather than a full-fledged, fluent motion picture. Yet even though, as argued above, the film is indulgent, depending on how much you appreciate Tarantino’s previous work, such as ‘Basterds, Pulp Fiction & Kill Bill, to name a few, you might perhaps be able to turn a blind eye.
Django Unchained is definitely a film for audiences who can take their gore, offering an eventful, epic tale of revenge and love. Although the film is for the most part enjoyable, and suitably intense, it also revels in blood however, something that may deter spectators from seeking out said film, for something lighter instead.