Quentin Tarantino is always a difficult filmmaker to critique. Since Kill Bill (2003), he has specialised in making a very distinctive brand of reference-filled, “Grindhouse” style, ultra-violent action films. Looking back on his early films, however, they seem in retrospect to be a bit more mature and thoughtful in comparison to his recent films. The temptation is now to be disappointed by Tarantino’s current output and to say that he has not lived up to his filmmaking potential. While in part that’s true, I can never bring myself to dislike any of his films, because they are just so much “fun”. That excuse is often used to defend brainless blockbusters like the Transformers franchise, but in the case of Django Unchained it really is the best term to use. Django is not a stupid film. It is actually a very clever film. It is simply more interested in entertaining the audience than educating them, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Django Unchained is set in America two years before the Civil War and tells the story of black slave Django, played by Jamie Foxx, who is freed from bondage by German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two then work together as bounty hunters, before heading to the plantation of sadistic Southern slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) to free Django’s wife. That plot might sound like a simple revenge popcorn flick, but there are enough twists and turns in the narrative to keep the audience guessing as to the characters’ next moves. What helps is the quality of both the writing and the acting. The lead actors all give the best they have, with Jamie Foxx’s understated Django being his best performance since his 2004 Oscar winning role in Ray. As for the others, Waltz’s Schultz is delightfully amusing and enigmatic, DiCaprio’s Candie is sickeningly brutal under a faux-suave exterior and Samuel L. Jackson reminds us why he is a star, pulling off a brilliant and thought-provoking performance as the head slave Stephen. Scenes with all of these characters in the frame at the same time are the best in the film, supplemented by the well-written dialogue that made Tarantino’s early films so popular.
In terms of style, Django Unchained is the usual mix of modern and old-school film styles associated with Tarantino. In his previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), some of the musical choices and the ultramodern editing clashed with the more retro vibe of the movie in general, but in Django these features are implemented far more smoothly and are not disjointed. The film flows by effortlessly and even with a lengthy running time of 165 minutes, it never loses pace or the attention of the audience.
All these points do provide for a very enjoyable film. There is slightly more depth to the production due to subject matter of slavery but the film does not attempt to make any in-depth analysis of this subject, nor does it put across any more complex messages. However unlike many other mainstream Hollywood films with a similar setting (from Gone with the Wind to modern blockbusters like Cowboys vs. Aliens), Django does not mask the horrors of this history. The suffering of the slaves is treated with dignity and, while no audience member will have any major epiphany watching Django Unchained, it does provide a little food for thought.
In general, the film is simply a very enjoyable experience. It does not teach the audience anything. It is not very beautiful or life-altering. However it is fun. Obviously a film of gunfights and excessive violence is not for every cinema-goer, but for anyone with even a passing interesting in witty dialogue and fantastic action, this film is highly recommended. It is not going to change your life; but if you just need a good way to spend a few hours, then you could do a lot worse.