Movie Review: Django Unchained

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In the old West, slave Django is freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schulz and they team up to rescue Django’s wife from a particularly vicious Southern slave owner.

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Quentin Tarantino, 2012

I was disappointed to miss this at the movies when it came out, because I’m a Tarantino fan and I’ve seen all of his other movies except Jackie Brown, which I hope to see one day. It didn’t disappoint, full of the usual Tarantino violence and energy with a fairly straightforward narrative. It really shines a bright spotlight on America’s ugly history of slavery, but it does so in a way that’s entertaining and enjoyable with a couple of explosions.

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The performances are pretty solid. Jamie Foxx does a good line in stoic, mysterious cowboy, and he provides a few moments of humour with his wardrobe choices and has a great catchphrase (“The D is silent”), but mostly plays straight man to Christoph Waltz’s marvelous bounty hunting former dentist. Tarantino uses Waltz as his vehicle to show off his brilliant way with words, and Waltz talks himself into and out of several dangerous scenarios with a light touch and brilliant comic timing. He’s an absolute delight as the fair-minded, well-read bounty hunter, easily earning his Oscar. The other stand-out amongst the cast is Leonardo DiCaprio as the smarmy Mississippi man Calvin Candie, owner of a large plantation and many slaves. He organises “Mandingo fights”, in which male slaves fight one another to the death. It’s all pretty horrific, but the violence in this film is as much within the characters as it is on the screen. There are some amazingly tense moments that are full of uncertainty; you never know what Candie is going to do next. Kerry Washington does little other than damsel as Broomhilda von Shaft (really), the “princess” that the men are fighting to save from the “dragon” of Calvin Candie.  Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his role as the villainous slave Stephen, who worships Candie.

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The film is shot beautifully, of course, in sumptuous colours and with Tarantino’s usual flair. One of the highlights for me was the soundtrack – rather than just choosing great songs, there are great songs written for this movie (and not long after I was bemoaning the lack of theme songs these days). Django’s Theme is fantastic. There are a few blistering rap songs over a couple of scenes, but for the most part the music is a mix of period-friendly and modern, which works well with the not-entirely-historically-accurate movie. There’s a signature absurd talking scene in the middle of the action (the Ku Klux Klanners discussing their hoods).  There are some pacing problems in the second half of the movie – it loses steam after the bounty hunting, fast-talking fun of the first half, and takes a while to find its footing before the bloodbath finale. It’s definitely one of Tarantino’s better efforts, mixing style and substance with mythology to good effect.

Django Unchained on IMDb

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