When Quentin Tarantino burst into the mainstream in the early 1990s he redefined what cinema was to be for the next decade. Utilising non-linear narrative, dialogue-heavy scripts he began creating his very own back-catalogue of homage and satires relating to exploitation cinema while single-handedly creating some of the most memorable and iconic characters in all of film history. As time has passed and his reputation has grown he has been given more and more creative control over his films, which has lead to the creation of the Western blaxploitation epic Django Unchained.
German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) releases a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx) and offers to make him a free man if he helps identify three brothers so that he can collect the price on their head. After successfully completing this mission the two men agree to work together over the winter before joining forces to track down Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from cotton field owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Much like Tarantino’s Inglorious Barsterds the opening scene is utter brilliance. Opening with the old school Columbia Pictures logo and the opening bars of a score created by legendary Western maestro Ennio Morricone it is clear that Tarantino’s fingerprints are all over Django Unchained. Cut to a wooded area by night and a line of slaves being transported by two men on horses. Then, from the darkness comes a small wagon with a giant tooth on the top. The mixture of intrigue and farcical will form the roots of the film and driving the wagon is the highlight of the entire narrative.
The superb Waltz is every bit as captivating as he was as Col. Hans Landa, only this time there is some strong moral fibre behind the killer of outlaws and he raises the quality of every scene he’s in. Foxx is also in fine form, clearly having a blast playing the titular Django, while Leonardo DiCaprio chews scenario as the nefarious Candie, although it does take some time for him to appear.
Django Unchained’s opening follows the growing bond between Django and Schultz. The easy chemistry between the two is a delight and their conversations are some of Tarantino’s finest dialogue ever. It is in this relationship where the film as at its pinnacle, while the sections involving Candie are also a wonderous collection of character interactions. There’s even a hilarious cameo from Samuel L. Jackson that threatens to steal the whole film. Sadly it is the scenes in-between these moments where Django Unchained suffers.
It has been said that as Tarantino has developed in his film-making career he has become self-indulgent and lacking in a good edit. This has never been more evident than in Django Unchained. There are long scenes of exposition, which are fine, but the endless slow-motion scenes lose their edge quickly and the final scenes become increasingly painful to watch along with a nonsensical cameo from Tarantino himself where he sports the most bizarre and unexplained Australian accent. A harsh edit would have removed around 30 minutes of the unneeded scenes and produced what could arguably have been Tarantino’s finest work. Sadly they are included and the film suffers terribly for it.
It’s difficult to engage with Django Unchained fully and you can’t help but find yourself waiting for the next exchange between the three central performances. Swinging wildly between incendiary genre masterpiece to slow, plodding disaster it represents everything that is best and worst about the controversial director. When it’s good, it’s breathtaking and when it’s bad, it’s unwatchable. It’s sad really to know that within the 2 hour 45 minute running time that there is a masterpiece waiting to be unearthed, but once again we are left waiting for Tarantino to reach the heady heights of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. An improvement on recent films, but by no means a classic, Django remains chained to an overinflated, self-indulgent mess.