In the build-up to Django Unchained’s cinema release, director Quentin Tarantino stated that directors were like prizefighters; they have their prime and then they need to step out of the ring. Quite whom he was referring to is anyone’s guess but what is certain, based on Django Unchained, is he was not talking about himself. For while it might be shrouded in controversy – accusations of it being racist combined with excessive violence – Django Unchained is quintessentially a Tarantino picture, with everything that entails, and arguably his finest work since Pulp Fiction.
1858, the American South, and slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is being driven across country when his new owners encounter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter posing as a dentist. Schultz is anxious to buy Django knowing that he is the only man who can help him identify The Brittle Brothers for whom he has a ‘wanted dead or alive’ court order for. Freeing Django, Schultz informs him that once he has helped him find the Brittle Brothers he will pay him and give him his freedom. But Django has other plans and informs Schultz he wants to learn how to kill in order to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of violent slave trader Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Together, Django and Schultz travel to Candie’s plantation, known as Candie Land, posing as Mandingo fighting traders, the sport in which two slaves fight to the death. With Candie fascinated by Django and Schultz’s relationship he agrees to an audience with them but Candie’s wily old slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) can smell a fox in his hen house and suspects Django is not what he appears.
Forget the controversy, Django Unchained is a fun, exciting often brutally dark comic Western. It is a film that, like so much of Tarantino’s work, pays homage to a genre that has otherwise departed. While the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are clearly present and accounted for in Tarantino’s gleeful shooting style, the violence comes courtesy of another stalwart of the Western genre, Sam Peckinpah. But while Peckinpah reveled in the slow motion of bullets riddling bodies, Tarantino prefers a more excessive and comical approach. We never see the real violence on screen, the camera often panning away to allow the crunching sounds of breaking bones to conjure an image, but when the bullets fly they do so in fountains of over the top comical fountains of claret.
Tarantino has always walked a fine line between violence and comedy – see “I shot Marvin in the face” as a key example – and while he continues that trend here, he does so with a perfect balance. The scenes in which the horrors of slavery are depicted; whippings, torture and killings, are done so with the reactionary horror of Schultz’s often cold-blooded killer. Here is a man happy to shoot a farmer who is tilling a field with his young son but is sickened by the treatment of slaves.
Unlike Kill Bill or Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained is a revenge story with a purpose. It spends much of its running time dispelling the Hollywood idea of slavery. There are no friendly slave owners here, no Gone With The Wind style sass exchanged between slave and owner but rather a sadistic uncompromising belief that the white man is superior to his black slaves. And at the centre of it all is Django, a man on a mission but desperate to show that he is just as worthy, often more so, than the cretinous slave owners and handlers who elevate themselves above him.
Yet for all its brilliance Django Unchained comes with one key caveat and that is Tarantino. For all his energy, his larger than life characters, his visual flair and uncompromising cinematic ideals, he is often susceptible to self-indulgence. Django is no exception as it builds to a raucous crescendo, our hero letting fly with bullets that splatter their targets across the pristine white walls, you sense the ultimate dénouement is only moments away. And yet, it isn’t. Instead the film throws another obstacle in Django’s path forcing the film to drag for another forty minutes and allows Tarantino a cameo so insufferable and grating as to rise a unanimous groan from all those who recognise him. It is a fleeting moment and the film is soon back on track but it’s enough to remove you from the thrill ride you were so utterly engrossed in.
As you would expect Tarantino has assembled the cream of Hollywood to flesh out his larger than life, but always stunning, characters. Jamie Foxx, in the role turned down by Will Smith, is asked to do little more than bring a strong, silent yet effortlessly cool vibe to Django which he does with aplomb. He’s part Eastwood’s Man With No Name, part Shaft, offering a death stare so penetrating it could be shot in 3D. Samuel L. Jackson is wonderfully seething as the bitter and twisted Stephen, hunched over and conniving he is the film’s most disgusting villain in a story which is littered with them. Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly reveling in the delights of playing the big bad and does so with an eccentric exuberance so theatrical as to be a dark delight. But the film belongs to Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. Whenever Schultz is on screen his charm and intellect are mesmerising. While he was often cartoonish in Inglorious Basterds, here he is charming, a gentleman in a foreign land happy to roll with the customs but often repulsed by the people who execute them. On this basis you hope Waltz and Tarantino are never far apart.
Often brutal, frequently brutally funny, Django Unchained is Tarantino at his unbridled best with every connotation that involves. Like the character Django you suspect there are no chains that can contain Tarantino.