Take a dash of Roots, a splash of Kill Bill, and a generous dollop of the Sergios Corbucci and Leone. Stir in an explosive soundtrack of old Western folk and modern day hip hop then barbecue for 165 minutes. What you’ll end up with is Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino‘s latest flick; a rip roaring adventure tale that gallops across the dark past of America, taking a good, hard look at its history of the slave trade along the way.
To call Django Unchained a ‘Southern’ is entirely apt; its story swaps the traditional West with the Deep South and, just for good measure, does everything it can to turn the genre upon its Stetsoned head. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave freed by German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in exchange for his help in identifying three potential bounties. Their fledging partnership evolves and soon leads them to evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a daring attempt to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from his evil clutches.
There is no doubt that the morally indignant hydra Tarantino is doomed to do battle with will be snapping its jaws angrily over Django Unchained‘s controversial content, especially as it remains entirely typical of the director’s approach to movie violence; graphic, savage and completely unflinching. The cartoony splatter of the bounty hunting exploits punctuate the film frequently, as do some particularly vicious torture scenes, but they are nothing compared to the movie’s climax – a ferocious orgasm of carnage, similar in execution to the ending of Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino paints his canvas red once again as cannonades of bullets reduce his characters to nothing more than erupting fountains of gore; oceans of blood run left, right and centre. It’s as horrendous as it is perversely magnificent.
Is all of this warranted? Perhaps not, but this is a Tarantino film – his ninth as a director, in fact – so you should know what you’re dealing with by now. His trademark swagger is as uncompromisingly evident always in his direction of Django Unchained but, aside from a few historical liberties being taken, there does seem to be a a genuine effort on his behalf to tackle the brutal insanity of slavery head on, rather than just exploit it for the sake of a good story. The cruelty of the era is captured in a way that does not trivialise the atrocities shown, nor patronise or mollycoddle audiences in their depiction. QT makes sure we get “dirty” when we step into Django’s world, and a lot of the scenes (including a barbaric Mandingo brawl, and a man being ripped apart by wild dogs) will stay with you long after the credits roll.
However, the film’s unrelenting focus on the horrors of the slave trade does mean that its characters do tend to fall into the trap of being a little too black and white (pun intended.) For example, the white folk onscreen aren’t just presented as being acutely racist; they are nearly all vile, sadistic Untermeschen who not only revel in the torture of slaves, but seemingly get off on it too. Although perhaps this generalist approach was a conscious decision on Tarantino’s behalf, as it certainly adds to the flavour of what are arguably his film’s best characters, Dr Schultz and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) – both of whom buck the movie’s use of stereotypes, and go to prove that qualities such as heroism and evilness are not exclusive to individual races; instead, they transcend them entirely.
Waltz returns to Inglorious Basterds form as Schultz, stealing all the scenes he is in with delightful glee. The actor seems born to play Tarantino’s most magnetic roles, and the silver tongued bounty hunter matches Colonel Hans Lander in terms of being electrically charismatic. Indeed, most of the fun that can be had from Django Unchained is from watching Waltz have a ball with his performance, and his odd couple double-act with Foxx’s Django is inspired. But, while Schultz is the only white character featured to openly despise the slave trade, Samuel L. Jackson’s wonderfully loathsome Stephen, the “Uncle Tom” of the Candieland Ranch and regime, is equally interesting for the exact opposite reason – he is the only black character shown to actively enjoy seeing members of his own race enslaved. Boggle eyed, hunched and shaky, he really is the Igor to Candie’s Count Dracula, pouring poison in his master’ ear at every opportunity he can. Steven is some of Jackson’s best work to date.
And what an excellent Dracula Leonardo DiCaprio makes as faux-aristocratic Franchophile Calvin Candie – a man as rotten as the teeth in his Cheshire Cat grin. As a villain the character never quite works as well as Lander, but DiCaprio brings such a spoilt, spiteful, petulant brilliance to Candie, you’ll find it difficult to not enjoy his queasy charm.
In the film’s later stages, Schultz remarks that soon Django will be called the “fastest gun in the West”, although, at 165 minutes, the same cannot be said for the film’s running time. While there is rarely a dull moment to be had in the company of the bounty hunters, their early days together (particularly those concerned with Schultz’s tutoring of Django) do become episodic in nature, and often feel like an initial level of a video game; the pair have to kill a hoard of random bad guys before they get their shot at the Boss. To be truly honest, most of the time you don’t actually feel the length (for something that’s nearly three hours long, it is surprisingly zippy) but it could, and should, have ended about fifteen to twenty minutes before it eventually does – and such a cut would also snip out Tarantino’s own toe-curling cameo.
So, yes, while it is a little porky around the middle, Django Unchained is also really rather brilliant; a double barrelled, new and fantastic champion for the Western genre. It’s a great addition to QT’s expanding canon and, for my money, his best work since Pulp Fiction – something I consider to be one of the best films ever made.
I just wish it had been rubbish, if only for the “Wake Me Up Before You Djan-Go” title I’d thought of prior to seeing the film (there was no way I wasn’t going to mention that.)
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