German ex-dentist and bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) to hunt down a trio of outlaws before going on a quest to free the latter’s wife from the hands of Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the first western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Do I even have to say that Tarantino is beloved amongst film buffs? In film school, fellow students would often cite him as their favorite director of all time, or at least one of their greatest inspiration. All of that mostly based on his first two films; Reservoir Dogs and, of course, Palme d’Or-winner and critically-acclaimed Pulp Fiction. Me? I think those two are way overrated. Not bad films really. They’re good, but simply overrated. Pulp Fiction in particular. But it is not our subject. I want to talk about Django Unchained, which is, in my opinion, Tarantino’s finest piece of written and directing to date. Here’s why.
Tarantino proves that he is an incredible director of actors, pushing Leo to do from psychotic anger to over-the-top politeness in a matter of a sentence. The actor even cuts his hand when slamming his hand on a glass in a moment of anger and, as Dr. King Schultz would say, doesn’t break character and goes on acting like it was all planned. He looks at his bloody hand, and, unable to light his cigarette with one hand, improvises on-set and lights a match from a candle in front of him. That’s mind-blowing. Notice how he intercuts with reaction shots, but keeps coming back to the same take on which Leo cut his hand. That’s why I love films; little moments like that who are pure magic on set. You can write, plan and rehearse a scene as much as you’d like, but you’d never know when magic will happen and make one shot or one scene this good. He teams up with Christoph Waltz once more, after his incredible performance in Inglourious Basterds which won him his first Academy Award. Waltz’s acting has never been better that under Tarantino’s direction. And the role won him in second and last (to date) Oscar.
It captures everything I want to see in a western.
The writing is phenomenal. I mean, he sure is known for extended scenes of dialogue, but how does one come up with a it’s so funny it hurts scene like the raid at the night? It lasts for a least two or three minutes of dialogues between the klan’s members as they put on their hoods and “can’t see fuckin’ shit”. “Wait a minute, I didn’t say no bags!” “But nobody can see.” “So?” “So, it’d be nice to see”. I rarely laughed my ass off in the theater. And let’s not forget Tarantino’s signature aestheticisation of violence that don’t always end up with blood spurting on white walls or roses (which it does a lot), but also in reaction shots of witnesses such as the slaves holding their balls when poor D’Artagnan is being devoured by the hounds or the body of Luigi moving in excruciating pain that comes to a full stop when the hammer smashes his brains in. It is not quite what we see or hear that seems violent, but how characters react to that violence that grasps us.
The whole lot of that makes Django Unchained a must-see and one of the best western ever put to screen. From Ennio Morricone’s iconic western themes to James Brown & 2Pac’s shootout tune, it never seizes to surprise the audience and gratify them with iconic shots throughout the film. Some of them seem so simple and yet so hard to put together; Django walking in tracking close up shot during the opening credits, Big Daddy’s horse galloping full speed ahead while its rider is shot in the head and falls on the ground perfectly framed. Or Django turning to the audience and smiling at us, cigarette between his lips in one of the final shot. It captures everything I want to see in a western.