A western movie from Quentin Tarantino involving bounty hunters and the slave trade. You know what to expect here; violence, swearing, and more racial epithets than you can count*. The plot doesn’t really matter, most of the characters have done some evil deed or other and some of the less unpleasant characters are going to end up taking revenge on some of the more distasteful ones. They are going to be super-cool doing it and to hell with things like common sense and historical accuracy.
Jamie Foxx plays black slave Django who once worked on a plantation with a couple of wanted criminals. For this reason bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) decides he wants Django as a sidekick so he can help claim the bounty. This is the beginning of a very fruitful partnership. The unlikely pair go on a bounty claiming spree and earn a lot of money and quite a few enemies doing it. Schultz, as a proxy for the audience, learns Django’s back story and decides to help the newly freed slave to secure the freedom of his wife, Broomhlida.
Being a Tarrantino movie, the plan to regain Broomhilda for Django involves a lot of very stylised fight scenes, some extreme bloody violence, lots of posturing and a huge amount of swearing. Even if you class the racial epithets separately, there’s a lot of swearing in this movie. A lot of the choices made by the characters are over the top ridiculous, seemingly made by the director to make the movie cooler rather than by the characters after sensible deliberation.
Schultz for example regularly provokes his bounties into fighting so that he can kill them. He regularly puts his own and Django’s life in danger by these actions and by making normal passers by think he’s a cold-blooded murderer. He also provokes the notoriously racist landowners by parading his “free” negro in front of them in an environment where many people would shoot a negro they didn’t like the look of before asking questions, if they even asked a question at all.
This gets them into trouble with the proto-kkk and several other groups. These scenes are achingly stylish and cool and set up the scene for yet more cool and stylish scenes but you can’t help but think that there would be a much more sensible way to achieve the character’s (rather than the director’s) aims without the hassle of almost getting killed every five minutes.
The whole final act of the movie, which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is precipitated by an immensely foolish and over the top reaction by Schultz when they were almost home free. Most of the movie is made up of posturing and scheming to get to Broomhilda when realistically they could have just bought her with the money they made from bounty hunting.
Despite the critical things I’ve said so far, I really enjoyed this film. I love westerns and it is great to see a more modern take on the genre. As you’d expect, the scenes are lovingly constructed and beautifully photographed. The narrative isn’t as disjointed as many other Tarrantino films. Ignoring the ridiculous aspects, the plot is cool and funny while also managing serious and dramatic when called for. The score is interesting and it was fun to hear rap or hip hop music playing in the background of a western movie, somehow it didn’t feel at all anachronistic.
Christoph Waltz is excellent as ever. Although the back story of his character is almost non-existent and the motivations for any of his actions is only ever hinted at, he still feels like a fully rounded character. It is a pleasure to listen to him speak and his lines are perfectly delivered. Leonardo DiCaprio is genuinely disturbing as Calvin Candie a rich plantation owner with a penchant for negro fighting. His character is creepy and has a sadistic streak but really comes across as a reasonable (for the time) business man rather than an unreasonable psychopath.
For me Jamie Foxx is a bit disappointing as Django. The film gifts him innumerable cool setpieces where he can strut his stuff and he does well but I really got the feeling that it could have been any competent actor standing there and he’d still look cool in this role. I heard that originally Will Smith was wanted for the role which would definitely have been a test for that theory!
The other stand-out performance is Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, the right-hand man of Leonardo’s plantation owner. If anything Stephen is more racist than Calvin and is responsible for many of the unpleasant things that happen towards the end of the film. He is also responsible for a lot of the swearing and quite a few of the n-words in the film.
Watch this film if you like: Tarantino movies, guns, stylish action scenes, black humour.
Avoid this film if you don’t like: historical inaccuracy, violence, blood, swearing.
Absolutely do not watch this film if you are offended by racial slurs, especially the dreaded n-word.