Although he’d probably negate the claim, Tarantino is one of America’s last standing auteur filmmakers. He’s crafted his niche, with a mixture of horror-show violence, expletive-laden dialogue, pop soundtracking, cinephile anachronism and Samuel L. Jackson cameos. Following several fanboy duds, Kill Bill, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, he returns to the big screen with Django Unchained; more nefarious, iconoclastic and iconographic than ever. In short, it’s Tarantino, through-and-through, and the best film he’s released since Jackie Brown.
A playful homage to the old fashioned tropes of Blaxploitation cinema, Spaghetti Westerns, and Corbucci’s landmark 1966 outlaw, Tarantino transports the eponymous Django – aka, ‘the fastest shooter in the South’ – to a pre-Civil War America, and gives him a racial transformation, to boot. Superbly played by Jamie Foxx, our beloved hero starts out as a shackled, cowering slave, being dragged through the forest to an auction house. Along the way, he is bought by Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a verbally dexterous German dentist turned mercenary. After a gory transaction, the pair start out an unlikely business partnership as salt-and-pepper bounty hunters, catching outlaws and picking up the state-paid levy. They even get the chance to rub out an impish gang of Ku Klux Klan copycats (they hold no purpose to the narrative, but their Blazing Saddles style idiocy routine brings some excellent bawdy humour to the bloodied proceedings).
This first story takes up about 80 minutes of the film’s overall running time. We get to see Django go through class elevation, from slave to a cowboy on horseback, to a free-man with a vengeance. The pair set out to find Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now the property of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) a savage Mississippian plantation owner, notorious across the land for treating his slaves like butchered flesh. I think a showdown is in order.
Not only is the story complex and novelistic, the characters are fabulously drawn, with some beautiful set and costume design from Leslie A. Pope and Sharen Davis (both cheated out of Academy Awards nods). After a defining performance as a smooth operating Nazi general in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz puts his natural charisma to the force of good as the affable Shultz, twiddling his moustache and moving with a sprightly gate, perfectly matched with Foxx’s cool, swaggering renegade. It’s also the best DiCaprio performance I’ve seen in recent memory, so pantomimic as the venomous Candie, a man who details African slaves’ inferiority through insipid phrenological study, whose astonishing good looks cover up his black heart, and blacker teeth.
As if that wasn’t enough mesmerising performances to get to grips with, Tarantino calls upon old favourite Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the supreme leader to Candie’s impoverished slaves. He’s an Uncle Tom, of sorts, eerily servile and complacent to the white family which he longs to be a member of, whilst deducing the people of his same African patronage off to be mercilessly sold like cattle. Every time he chuckles along with Candie you feel like retching, whenever he callously drops ‘the n-word’ it leaves an impact like a shotgun wound. It’s the most wretched, unsettling character Tarantino has ever created, and certainly a career best for the admired Mr.
Like many a Tarantino project, the film’s main issues are in it’s pacing and meandering direction. It’s as if he and editor Fred Askin were too busy geeking out over fanboy film chat that they forgot to produce anything more than a loose rough cut (including a painful cameo from the motormouthed filmmaker which is more torturous than waterboarding, I imagine).
However, just like his previous work, Django Unchained is never boring. In fact, it’s often absolutely mesmerising, with dirtied lensed visuals mixed with a cine-literate soundtrack of arcane Ennio Morricone orchestrations, mixed with present day hip-hop from Wu-Tang Clan chief RZA.
Some have perceived it as a gross opportunistic rehashing of America’s darkest era, but I think that does the film a great disservice. Unlike Spielberg and his current Lincoln movie, or Zero Dark Thirty from Kathryn Bigelow, Tarantino has somehow earned the right to produce films which are exempt from scruples and questions of veracity. You simply get them or you don’t. If you’re after a history lesson, this is certainly not the film for you. If bloodied, hilarious and offensive entertainment is the order of the day, then Django Unchained is a must-see. Welcome back, Tarantino; you brilliantly stubborn bastard, you.