Django Unchained (2012)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 6, 2013 | Comments
Anchor Bay | Region A | 2.40:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 166 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Django Unchained Cover Art
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring:: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Screnplay: Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA
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The danger of returning to a film you've seen only once and unreservedly loved is that realism can often set in: with your enthusiasm somewhat waned, the movie doesn't feel as fresh or vibrant as that first time; plot holes tend to show their ugly faces; the structure doesn't seem quite so strong as it did the first time; little niggling moments you didn't notice before start to make themselves apparent.

Thankfully this is most assuredly not the case upon my second viewing of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. All it did was reinforce what I loved about the damn thing in the first place: the phenomenal performances, the joyous interaction between the main characters as they brandish some of Tarantino's typically spot-on dialogue, the lush cinematography, the astonishingly bloody squibwork, the (admittedly spotty) use of music, the wonderfully evocative production design and costumes, everything. It's probably the fastest 166 minute movie you'll ever see - honestly, if I didn't know what the running time was beforehand I would have guessed that Django Unchained ran an hour and forty minutes at most.

Much like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is an epic revisionist film set in the past, in this case the deep South of the U.S.A. two years before the Civil War. Married slaves Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) are sold off to separate slavers. Django is freed from the yoke of his current masters by German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who needs Django to ID three men known as the Brittle brothers so he can collect a sizeable bounty. A friendship develops between the two and soon Django becomes Schultz's right-hand man. Django is obsessed with finding his wife, and Schultz agrees to help him. Broomhilda's trail leads to a plantation in Mississippi known as Candyland, run by the vicious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django pretend to be a prospective buyer and expert on Mandingo fighters respectively in order to bluff their way into Candie's good graces and hopefully purchase Broomhilda as part of a high-price deal. However, Candie's loyal house servant Stephen (an almost unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson - at least until he opens his mouth) is suspicious of the ruse. Bloody mayhem ensues.

Even the most ardent fan of Django Unchained, myself included, would have to admit that the film is a bit of a mixed bag. It's tonally inconsistent, jumping from goofy humour to grotesque, realistic violence to completely unhinged, splattery gore and back again. Characters appear but don't have much to do, giving the impression that their stories were left on the cutting room floor (in some cases, a certainty). And even though it's notably linear in narrative - Tarantino's most straightforward story to date, in fact - there are a couple of minor jumps in time which feel a little off. Apparently Tarantino's original screenplay was significantly altered from page to screen due to an extremely long shooting schedule, meaning various actors came and went, and roles were either eliminated or combined. At times, yes, you get a hint at the grander vision of Django Unchained and wonder, fleetingly, what the finished product might have been like if the stars had truly aligned. But, frankly, when the finished product is of the quality that Django Unchained is, it's hard to quibble.

The actors are at the top of their game. Christoph Waltz's cheeky, endearing turn as the ex-dentist/bounty hunter King Schultz has to be the standout. King's verbose deliveries are things of beauty, and Waltz has proved himself in this and Inglourious Basterds (both films in which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) to be, along with Jackson, the best deliverer of Tarantino's dialogue. That's not to say the other actors are slouches. Leonardo DiCaprio may have had some of the thunder of his performance stolen by Waltz, but he's very nearly his match with what is easily the most repugnant character of his career. Calvin Candie, the preening, pompous Francophile who can't speak a word of French, is a horribly racist, social elite wannabe who has no qualms about ordering his slaves be torn up by dogs if the mood takes his fancy. With his stained teeth and sneering delivery, he's quite possibly the ugliest character Tarantino has ever created, and that's really saying something considering Candie's up against a ruthless Jew hunter (Hans Landa), ear-slicing sadist (Mr Blonde) and serial rapist (Buck) to recall a few. Anyone who thinks DiCaprio wasn't up to the task of bringing such a monstrous character to life simply has to witness the phrenology scene. Samuel L. Jackson's been done up in old age makeup and takes on a stoop-and-shuffle routine, but beyond the physical transformation his delivery of a fiercely loyal, submissive yet occasionally ruthless and cunning servant is quite remarkable. One might think that given the film is called Django Unchained and Jamie Foxx plays the main character of Django that he would have more presence to begin with, but that's the very point of the character. He has to be set free by Dr Schultz, and even then it takes him time to grow into his skin after decades of being whipped, beaten and abused. Initially Django can only suppress his emotions because he's done that for so very long, but you see the seething anger bubbling under the surface. As part of the Candyland ruse, he plays a black slave owner (the worst thing a black man can be) and Mandingo expert, meaning he has to treat his fellow slaves as badly as he had once been treated. It's only later in the picture that Django is able to come alive with righteous fury, and Foxx handles it beautifully, never overplaying. I've never been a fan of his, but Django's changed that. Only Kerry Washington's Broomhilda gets the short straw, scenes with her character apparently truncated or excised from the finished film, leaving her character as merely an object for Django to seek out, not a fully fleshed-out person. She does well, but compared with characters like King and Candie, Django Unchained probably most suffers from a lack of a strong female character.

The music used in Django Unchained is mostly wonderful, particularly the opening song ("Django Theme Song" from, duh, 1966's Django with Franco Nero) and the use of Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" in what may be the most sublime passage in the film, where Django and King set off on their bounty hunting adventures on horseback. Admittedly, given the way Tarantino weaves modern-day snippets of music and score into his period-set pictures, we're treated to music that doesn't entirely sync with the wonderful period production and costume design. And yet it works. Only someone as audacious as Tarantino could try it and get away with it. Only "100 Black Coffins" by Rick Ross doesn't really work as well as it should within the context of its particular scene. Apparently Ennio Morricone had an issue with how Tarantino uses music in his films - his way of picking and choosing pieces of music doesn't give the music a chance to "breathe" - and it's easy to understand where Morricone is coming from. But for some reason it suits Django Unchained's shaggy dog style of movie-making.

There's controversial material of course, given that this is a movie about slavery, but it's handled the way only Tarantino can. The violence can be shocking or cringeworthy (the Mandingo fight, a dog attack) or absurdly, cartoonishly bloody (any time someone gets shot). Django Unchained must have spent half its budget on the squib and blood effects - everything's done in-camera, there's no CGI blood here, and it works brilliantly, even if it is extremely over-the-top. The problem is that we're meant to recoil at some of the violence, yet relish in other violent scenes. But then again, Django Unchained isn't some realistic portrayal of these pre-Civil War era times; it's a revenge fantasy western that just happens to use themes and scenes of slavery as its backdrop. Apparently Tarantino decided to tone down the particularly nasty bits; he didn't want to traumatise the audience too much with the brutal depictions of slavery, and to be honest it was probably the right move. You still get a sense of how the slaves were mistreated, and it's more than enough to put you on Django's side when he gets down to his bloody, satisfying revenge.

Some will claim that Django Unchained loses its way in its final quarter after a significant turning point - my argument is that it was necessary for the development of Django's character, but then again I never felt it was out-of-place to begin with. But that's Tarantino's style. He'll usually put a few "WTF?" moments in his films to throw the audience off. For some this may be a dealbreaker. His late appearance as an Australian slaver won't smooth things over for those audience members, that's for sure.

Django Unchained has phenomenal acting, gorgeous cinematography, an effective and eclectic soundtrack, some terrific violence and Tarantino's usual penchant for snappy, carefully developed dialogue. Fans of Tarantino, Westerns, revenge films or just really solidly-made and entertaining films should have a blast. As soon as I finished (re-)watching it, I had to stop myself from playing it again immediately, something I thought I'd grown out of from my childhood after endless replays of Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I can now comfortably state that it's not only my favourite Tarantino film by quite a large margin, but it's now firmly ensconced as one of my favourite films of all time. Absolutely, unreservedly recommended.
The Disc
Django Unchained's Blu-Ray presentation is as accurate a representation of the cinematic experience as you would hope for without going to 4K resolution. That means that Robert Richardson's masterful cinematography is replicated beautifully. Outdoor scenes practically sparkle; colours and definition are sublime. The scenes in Candyland come across as deceptively warm, inviting, soft, almost intoxicating - exactly as intended by Tarantino, Richardson and the production team. The 5.1 master audio fills the room with Django's stomach-churning sound effects; the gun-porny scenes practically envelop you. I feel the balance is off in places, as some of the music comes through too loudly compared with the rest of the soundtrack, but it's a very minor criticism. The disc looks and sounds terrific.

Unfortunately that's where the raves end. I was hoping for some intriguing, informative extras to populate this Blu-Ray/DVD combo set, if not a director's commentary from Tarantino then at least a solid hour-long behind the scenes feature. Alas, all we have are three so-so featurettes. Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained covers the work of the late production designer who sadly passed away during the shooting of the film. The Costume Designs of Django Unchained is exactly what the title suggests, yet proves to be more interesting than I was expecting. The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained covers the extensive horse stuntwork and the use of guns, including how Foxx and Waltz were trained to quickdraw. This is probably the best of the three features.

Other "features" include a brief Django Unchained Soundtrack Spot and preview for The Tarantino XX Blu-Ray Collection, celebrating Tarantino's first twenty years of filmmaking. To list these as features is quite some cheek, I must say.

What really would have greatly improved this release is the inclusion of some of the (apparently many) deleted scenes that were originally cut from Django Unchained. Presumably Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein are holding off on a director's cut which will ultimately never get released, a'la Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

Fortunately the movie is good enough to overcome the disappointing extras. We wait to see whether the Aussie release will have the same features as this U.S. version or if it will have alternate features (not bloody likely).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Like the bastard child of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Mandingo, the original Django and A Better Tomorrow II, to name a few, Django Unchained is Tarantino's masterwork. Riotously enjoyable despite the admittedly difficult material, this is his ultimate statement on revenge, worth it if nothing else for Christoph Waltz's sublime performance and the astonishing bloodshed. It deserves a better release with more comprehensive extras, but the picture and sound quality are superior, and ultimately the film is what counts. And thankfully, the film is phenomenal.
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