Quentin Tarantino’s revision of world history continues with his singular, ultra-violent blaxploitation-film-cum-spaghetti-western Django Unchained, a passionate love letter to mid-1960s cinema that might feel lesser compared to most of the director’s filmography, but compensates for its flaws with the trademark wit and explosive action we’ve come to expect from a QT picture.
The narrative begins in 1858 Texas, two years before the start of the American Civil War, as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) with the hope that the slave can lead him to a tasty bounty he’s chasing. In return, Schultz promises to help Django rescue his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry) from eccentric plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (DiCaprio) by posing as a businessman.
For better and for worse, this is every bit the Tarantino flick that fans will expect; it is in no hurry to tell its story, at once setting a methodical pace and inviting the director’s typical excesses, but also resulting in plenty of great tall-tales and verbose dialogues between characters, even if many of them don’t pop as loudly as what we’re used to from the director. Still, when anyone has reached a creative pedestal as high as QT, comparing them incessantly to what has come before is perhaps a tad unfair, if not unrealistic. Though not as water-tight as his best works, the script’s lack of self-satisfied monologues and groansome cinematic references is a pleasant surprise that is to be commended.
Moreso than the script, spry and consistently engaging though it is, Tarantino’s strongest achievement is in composing the stylistic whole of Django Unchained; the fast zooms, quick cuts and grainy flashbacks are all totally in the vein of a rickety blaxploitation flick. Still, that doesn’t stop the director from, with long-time lenser Robert Richardson, assembling some gorgeous imagery along the way; the cinematography as the characters ride along sun-kissed vistas is especially remarkable.
True to form, the film also features a wealth of songs from Tarantino’s own music collection, and he clearly has no pretensions to timeliness, meaning we’re saddled with an eclectic mix of classical music (Verdi’s Requiem Dies Irae), rap, and gravelly Johnny Cash tunes, the latter of which are of course best-suited to the period. This combination of visual and aural mastery is a blast to watch, and in true QT style, it sits well aside not only his signature slow-burn dialogue but also some savagely gratuitous violence.
Though far away from the gore fountains of Kill Bill, the film’s countless gunfights feature ridiculous exploding squibs that are enjoyable to watch if as a result lacking the grim, visceral impact of the revolting head-carvings from Inglourious Basterds. There aren’t many moments that viewers will wince at in Django, but this is a by-product of the genres that the director is trying to pay tribute to, characteristically flippant towards violence as they were.
It’s reasons like this that the film is easily the lesser of the two revisionist history pieces that Tarantino has concocted; the slave trade was a dark, horrific period of American history, and though the director does offer some slivers of food-for-thought, the film’s subversive aesthetic somewhat undercuts its potency, as well as the resulting fact that none of the characters are as well-developed or as vulnerable as, for instance, Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna. Bastards was not bound by the same restriction, and though this exploitation throwback does milk its style for every lost drop, it is at the slight expense of narrative integrity.
What’s important is that this world is a riot to be a part of for the film’s beefy 165-minute runtime. Some pretty rudimentary scripting tactics help to immerse us more in this setting; Tarantino’s use of the n-word is likely to be seen as excessive by many, but it is appropriated in an entirely authentic manner that helps to root us further in the period. Aiding this is some superb crafts work; set dressing is uniformly excellent, and the costume design – whether it’s Django’s Austin Powers-esque get-up or his badass suits later on – is fantastically dapper.
Further fuelling our enthusiasm for the locale moreso than the story is the litany of familiar faces that Tarantino feels content to pepper the world with beyond the principal cast. It’s great fun scouring the screen for the various bit-players thrown in for kicks, including (but surely not limited to) Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, Franco Nero (the star of the original Django), Don Johnson and Tarantino regular Michael Parks. Even Jonah Hill has a brief cameo, and Walton Goggins, seemingly typecast as a hick villain for all eternity, gets a few enjoyable scenes as one of Candie’s boisterous cronies.
Indeed, it’s the cast more than anything that really makes Django work. Riding an absurd-looking dentist-mobile – complete with a spring-loaded tooth atop it – Christoph Waltz, who made his career off the back of an Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds, is a warm leading presence as the complex, conflicted Schultz. As in Basterds, he’s fortunate to be handed much of the film’s best dialogue, which he rips through with a knowing, sly grin and a twirl of his moustache.
Waltz evidently carries a lot of the film’s first act, given that he’s fielded out endless amounts of Tarantino’s dialogue to chew on, whereas Foxx barely gets anything at all. Though the film is absolutely unfussed about the consequences of its violence, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a conscience, and Schultz best realises that position. He nor Tarantino says anything profound about the slave trade, but the motivation behind Schultz’s character is interesting and smartly developed. As a result, Waltz and Foxx make for a thoroughly entertaining double-act; if Waltz is the talk, then Foxx is the walk, a statuesque figure of unrelenting brutality driven by the force of love.
Easily the film’s strongest element, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s outstanding performance as the delicious villain Candie; he turns up an hour into the film and owns it for pretty much its remainder. Like Waltz, he’s clearly having a lot of fun, for the most part stoic and confidently contained, but also getting the odd opportunity to burst into a frighteningly ferocious mode, the likes of which we rarely see the actor in; consider his prospects as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee to be high. Another devilishly fun performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the cantankerous, suspicious voice of reason to Candie, who threatens to expose Django and Schultz’s ruse. Easily Jackson’s most prosperous role since he teamed with Tarantino for Jackie Brown, the actor gets his share of hilarious one-liners and looks fantastic in grey-hair and old(er) man make-up.
It’s so much fun seeing these actors all interact with one another that what they’re saying almost takes a back seat at some points, even during some of the best exchanges. That this bickering then explodes into an orgy of violence during the film’s third act is the icing on the cake, a virtuoso sequence of blood-letting that is regrettably followed up with a distracting cameo from the director himself as an accented slave transporter. Easily the worst moment of the film, Tarantino reminds us that he’s best off behind the camera, and this scene absolutely removes us from what is going on, even if it does have an amusing punchline to slightly redeem itself.
This isn’t the whip-smart Tarantino we’ve been spoiled with, for this is an altogether sillier yarn, but to that effect it’s also probably the director having his most pure, unadulterated fun. That so much of that transpires through to the final product is a triumph even if the film is not a might as gamy as his last film nor as canny as his best. It might seem like measured praise, but when an artist has managed to set his own bar so consistently high, it’s natural that we expect a lot; that he falls a little short of indisputable mastery is no shame. Perhaps not a great Tarantino film, but an extremely enjoyable one nevertheless, Django Unchained is a thoroughly excessive, gore-soaked odyssey that’s blessed with outstanding performances – especially one from Leonardo DiCaprio – above all else.
Django Unchained is in US cinemas Christmas Day and in the UK on January 18th, 2013.
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