I still remember the day, nearly three years ago now, I received what was considered one of the holiest holy grail scripts of its day, the screenplay to Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino (the one he was robbed of an Oscar for last year). I flew through it in just a couple days and was completely blown away, so you can imagine my excitement last week when I found QT’s latest screenplay, Django Unchained, sitting in my inbox, awaiting my perusal.
It was a quick succession from rumors to the first screenshot of the title page to its arrival, so chances are this was the real deal, especially given how quickly Basterds had made its way out and about. The first thing I noticed about this screenplay was its epic length, 168 pages. QT is not exactly known for doing short movies (his shortest being Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof), so that made me even more excited to see that a potential epic was in store.
The premise of the story is not particularly complicated. A bounty Hunter, Dr. King Schultz, frees a slave, Django, in order to enlist his help in identifying three fugitive brothers. This is accomplished rather early on in the script, but by now the two have sort of become friends and with Django’s determination to go into the lion’s den in order to rescue his wife, well, Schultz just can’t let him go off on his own.
In order to prepare him, Schultz teaches him all about the bounty hunting business, the tricks of the trade, and how to use a gun, which is something that we quickly discover that Django is quite good at (it’s a type of western, there has to be good gunslingers everywhere). This sets up the second half of the script in which the two men try to execute a plan of deception in order to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda. This is also where we meet the story’s main villain, Monsieur Calvin Candie, who owns and operates Candyland, a plantation in the South. I’ll end the synopses there in order not to spoil any more.
Near the beginning of the script, I immediately took a liking to the character of Schultz, the German bounty hunter. His character is so eccentric and bizarre, but there’s also a method to his strangeness. He’s a man who doesn’t believe in the evils of slavery, but he does believe in going around and killing bad people for money. It’s being rumored, and boy I hope it’s true, that Christoph Waltz is to play him. The role seems to have been perfectly crafted for him, and it certainly helps that the character is German with the dialogue fitting someone like Waltz to a tee.
After his brilliant, Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, he has become an actor to watch out for. Sure he stumbled a bit with the pretty bad The Green Hornet, but he started showing his true colors again with a great performance in the recent Water for Elephants. With the role of Schultz, some may find that he’s getting a little close to playing Colonel Landa again (some said the same of his role as August in Elephants), but Schultz really isn’t that kind of character. For starters, he’s a good guy who wants to bring people to justice. Plus, early on, you find out that he wants to help Django out with his problem, risking his own neck for someone he doesn’t even know that well. So, like August, the role is somewhat superficially like Colonel Landa, but in fact, it’s a completely different kind of character.
Moving on to the main character, one of the things that I found difficult while reading the screenplay was trying to put a face on Django, and by that, I mean trying to determine what actor would be suited for this type of role. I’ve heard names like Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Children of Men) and Idris Elba (Thor, RocknRolla) thrown around for the part. Ejiofor could work. He did an outstanding job in Joss Whedon‘s Serenity as The Operative. I had to actually look up who Idris Elba was because the name didn’t ring any bells, and based off of the few performances I’ve seen from him, I haven’t really seen enough of him to determine whether or not he’d be a good match.
Imagine the shock that most people received to hear that QT wants Will Smith to play the role. I was about halfway through the screenplay when that news broke, so as I continued to read on, I tried mentally to insert Will Smith into the role, but I just couldn’t get it to work. I’m not saying he couldn’t pull it off, just that it would be incredibly hard. It’s not the kind of role that Smith is known for and it would certainly be well outside of his comfort zone.
The role of Django is very gritty and requires a fascinating transformation. Django goes from being a slave with not much of a future to a man trying to figure out what Schultz is playing at with his benevolence to an extremely confident man on a mission. Whoever QT eventually gets to play the role, and it very well could end up being an unknown, will have to be someone who is willing to take risks. This is certainly not an ordinary role that just anyone could pull off convincingly.
The villain, Calvin Candie, is another fascinating role. While there has been no one officially named yet, there has been speculation as to who could play the part, with one of the best choices I’ve heard being Gary Oldman. The versatile Oldman has already proven that he can play sly and evil with his role as Zorg in The Fifth Element. He’s the kind of actor who seems to be someone completely new in every film and he seems like he would be a perfect fit for the smooth, overconfident Candie, who must be dealt with in order to get to Broomhilda.
Another casting rumor involves QT regular Samuel L. Jackson playing Stephen, the head of Candie’s house slaves. The character is a straight talker who has liberties that the other slaves don’t have. He’s allowed to talk to Candie as if the men are equals and his opinion is highly valued. Though it is a small role, Jackson seems like the right kind of actor to bring the right amount of attitude that the role requires.
Now that we’ve covered the characters, let’s get more into the script itself. This is a straight up revenge story, which Tarantino had done in Kill Bill, but now we have completely different circumstances. While the story is not quite as engaging as Kill Bill or Basterds, it remains an interesting tale. The first half had me wondering what bizarre event could possibly happen next while the second half does the same thing, but with more tension as the two try to carry out their masquerade.
Those who are expecting action won’t be disappointed as there are several moments of completely unexpected violence during various shootings, bludgeonings, and the explosive finale. However, in between these, you also get the interesting mentor/protege relationship between Schultz and Django, and, of course, you can’t help but root for Django on his quest to get revenge on the people who have wronged him while trying to get back to his wife.
Besides fascinating characters, something else Tarantino is well-known for is great, memorable dialogue. There’s not as much of it to be found here as in say Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, but there are times when that QT spark comes through such as in a lot of Schultz’s dialogue in the first half, his conversations with Django, and some of the latter conversations among the other characters.
A lot of this film is going to depend upon the dynamic of the characters and the story. The characters here go a long way towards making it more enjoyable, and while the story is kind of simple, it does the job of supporting the characters while leading to several interesting situations.
While the screenplay didn’t really have me on the edge of my seat like his previous work had done, I found it compelling enough to want to find out what happened to the characters. The ending was another strange occurrence in that it wrapped up rather quickly. It kind of reminded me of the ending of Kill Bill, in that not much was required in order to bring the story to a conclusion, but even there, Bill and The Bride had had a long, fascinating conversation before it was over. For Django, barely any words were required to do what he had to do.
I look forward to seeing Django Unchained on the big screen, mainly to see the great Christoph Waltz portray the character of Schultz in what is sure to become another of his memorable performances. It will also be interesting to see what any actor will be able to do with the title role. As I mentioned before, it’ll have to be someone who isn’t afraid to take risks, but if the right person is found, it could be rather special.
Quentin Tarantino certainly has a great reputation to live up to. He has given us such masterpieces as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds. If he feels he can do something with a spaghetti western set in the south during the time of slavery, who are we to doubt him? This screenplay is a pretty good start.
- Great characters
- Compelling story
- Lots of well-written dialogue
- The ending wraps up rather quickly
- Not as engaging as QT’s previous work