Django…Django, have you always been alone?
Django…Django, have you never loved again?
Film geeks had to be on pins and needles when word got out that Quentin Tarantino would write and direct a Western. The Spaghetti Western was a tremendous influence on Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds so fans were eager to see QT tackle the genre outright. He does not disappoint with the vibrant and violent Django Unchained.
The titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is a runaway slave separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) by their wicked master. He is rescued from a chain gang by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who requires Django’s assistance in tracking down a trio of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. A newfound friendship quickly blossoms and Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife. Unfortunately, she is now in the possession of a particularly nasty plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Just as he has done in the past, Tarantino litters the narrative with references to the movies he loves with Django Unchained serving as a fusion of Westerns and blaxploitation. Tarantino specifically riffs on Sergio Corbucci, director of the original Django, which was a classic Spaghetti Western. Much like Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino took the title and barebones premise of an older Italian picture and injected it with his own unique vision. Franco Nero, the original Django, makes a cameo appearance and receives special thanks in the opening credits. Django isn’t the only Corbucci flick Tarantino pays homage to. The montage where Schultz trains Django in the snow covered mountains is a reference to The Great Silence, a rarity of the genre in that it was set during the dead of winter and not under a scorching desert sun. The theme of revenge recalls Navajo Joe, starring Burt Reynolds, as well as Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse, which played a huge part in the genesis of Kill Bill. Another film Tarantino owes a debt to is the controversial Mandingo with its brutal depiction of slaves forced to fight one another. In true Tarantino fashion, Broomhilda’s full name is Broomhilda von Shaft, after the German family that previously owned her, which points to her and Django being the ancestors of blaxploitation icon John Shaft.
Tarantino isn’t known for providing his films with an original score. He prefers using existing music and the soundtrack is an eclectic collection of anachronistic pop tunes like Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” with hip-hop tracks by Tupac and Rick Ross. In addition, there are the usual pieces from Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov whose compositions are synonymous with the Western genre. The opening credits are set to the theme song of the original Django while the end credits use “Trinity (Titoli),” the theme from They Call Me Trinity, a comedic take on the Western starring Terence Hill, who also appeared in the similar My Name is Nobody.
Django Unchained isn’t without its problems, not the least of which is Tarantino’s atrocious attempt at an Australian accent. The movie certainly feels like one of his messiest works, which could be explained by several factors. QT reportedly took a lax attitude when it came to production and the picture fell behind schedule. The death of Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke has to be factored in as well. This is his first picture without Menke and her presence in the editing room is missed. Finally, a lot of material was cut from the original screenplay, including extended backstories for Broomhilda and some of Candieland’s denizens. Django’s wife suffers the most from these trims as she is reduced to a damsel in distress. It is truly disappointing to see her as such a cipher compared to the strong female characters Tarantino has written before (Jackie Brown, The Bride, etc.). Tarantino does manage to inject his own flair for dark and over-the-top humor exemplified by a Blazing Saddles-style sequence involving the Regulators, the precursors to the KKK.
All those faults are easily overlooked by a winning performance from Christoph Waltz, who earned a second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Django Unchained lives and dies at the feet of the loquacious Dr. King Schultz. Never has the marriage between auteur and thespian been so perfect. Waltz was born to breathe life into Tarantino’s stylish dialogue. He exudes an inordinate amount of charisma in every scene. At the same time, there’s a subtle layer of shock and seething anger underneath Schultz’s whimsical nature due to the prejudice he witnesses. Every hero needs a strong villain to face and Calvin Candie serves that role thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is cast against type as the sinister Southerner. Much like Waltz as Hans Landa, DiCaprio possesses a disarming charm and cherubic visage that belies his propensity for sadism. However, the true antagonist in Django Unchained may just be Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the faithful servant to the Candie family. Judging by outward appearances, Stephen could be dismissed as a comical stereotype in the vein of Uncle Remus from “Song of the South.” But, his hateful nature is quickly revealed to be downright frightening. In addition the leads, Tarantino rounds out his rich supporting cast with regular collaborators like Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and Michael Parks alongside Jonah Hill, Walt Goggins, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, James Remar, John Jarratt, and Tom Wopat.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The transfer is stunning as it captures the golden hues of Candieland, the powder white snow of the winter scenes, and the weathered look of the flashbacks that invoke 70’s cinema.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The loaded soundtrack and frequent gunplay make this a dynamic sound presentation.
The Blu-ray is disappointingly bereft of substantial extras. It would have been nice to see some of the deleted scenes and hear from Tarantino more substantially about the picture and its influences.
Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained (12:50) is a featurette focusing on the late-J. Michael Riva, who passed away during production. It takes a look at how Riva and his team created a stylized version of the era rather than a wholly accurate one.
Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained (13:46) looks at the trainers and stuntmen involved with the horses used in the film and how proud Tarantino was that none of them were harmed.
The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis (12:03) looks at all the outfits created for the movie and the actors thoughts on their wardrobes.
Tarantino XX Blu-ray Collection Promo (1:25) and Django Unchained Soundtrack Promo (0:22) are two quick ads for ancillary releases.
Released as a combo pack, the BD comes with DVD, Digital Copy, and Ultraviolet versions of the picture.
Film Value: 8
Django Unchained is a vibrant example that Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just make movies, he makes pop art. The film soars on the back of Tarantino’s intricately written dialogue and a bravura performance from Christoph Waltz until it builds to a bloody crescendo. Django Unchained is my pick for the best film of 2012.