Django Unchained review

On Sunday, 13 January 2013, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., who recently returned from Taiwan, for a good if quick lunch at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We then met Beruk A. at the Kendall Square Cinema to screen Django Unchained. We all enjoyed the Western flick.

Quentin Tarantino's bloody western
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx

If you like director Quentin Tarantino‘s other movies, you know what to expect: snappy dialogue, some satire, homages to multiple film genres, and over-the-top violence. There has been some controversy over the film’s depiction of slavery and shootouts, but I think it’s good that American audiences are queasy in the face of the “peculiar institution” and gunfights. The “N word” is used to both shock and remind modern audiences of the original sin of the U.S. and its pernicious justifications.

Django‘s story is simple — Dr. King Schultz, an itinerant German dentist and bounty hunter, frees slave Django, who helps him track down and kill wanted criminals in return for help finding his wife Brunhilde, so named by previous owners. It turns out that Brunhilde is being kept at the plantation of Calvin Candie, whose right-hand man Stephen is wary of Schultz and Django’s cover story as slave dealers.

As usual, Tarantino has an excellent cast to work with, including Golden Globe winner Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz, Jamie Foxx as Django, and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda. Waltz was also in Tarantino’s similar World War II vengeance fantasy Inglorious Basterds. Calvin Candie is played to slimy perfection by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson shows how some people internalize oppression as the nasty Stephen. 

Django Unchained‘s supporting actors are no less familiar, including almost unrecognizable appearances by Don Johnson, Franco Nero (the original Django), Tom Wopat, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Johah Hill, and Zoe Bell. The director himself makes a cameo.

The cinematography and eclectic soundtrack show Taratino’s many influences, from classic and spaghetti westerns, to 1970s Blaxploitation, to postmodern westerns such as Unforgiven. The bloody battles and slayings have their roots in The Wild Bunch, and the scary hillbillies could have been in Deliverance or Pulp Fiction. Scenes mocking a lynch mob reminded me of Blazing Saddles and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (incidentally, two of my favorite movies).

Overall, I’d give Django Unchained, which is rated R for graphic violence, a B+, eight out of 10 stars, or three and a half out of five stars. It’s not for everyone, but those who like Tarantino’s oeuvre will find the movie satisfying. It did make me want to dust off RPGs Boot Hill or Sidewinder.