Ever since he burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs back in 1992 and then followed it up with the seminal Pulp Fiction in 1994, each new Quentin Tarantino film has felt like something of an event in its own right. While wildly different in tone and style, he is up there with the likes of Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen in terms of his name creating its own brand recognition of sorts. His latest offering is a deliriously violent two hours and forty five minutes long revenge Western (or ‘Southern’ as the director prefers) which is every bit as fun and pulpy as you might expect.
The titular Django is played with softly spoken cool by Jamie Foxx. At the film’s outset he is a shackled slave being marched across various barren landscapes in an early precursor of the racial driven brutality which is to follow. As they shiver through the night, marched ever onward by uncaring white masters, they are met by Christopher Waltz’s Dr Schultz, a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. After coolly dispatching of his captors, Schultz recruits Django to help him track down some nefarious outlaws who once worked on a plantation where Django resided. In return for his service, Schultz promises Django his freedom.
The pair become an effective partnership with Schultz’s quick-thinking and smarts complimented well by Django’s dead-eye marksmanship. After months of successful work, Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife ‘Broomhilda’ (Kerry Washington), from whom he was cruelly separated after they were caught trying to run away. The duo eventually tracks ‘Hilda’ down to the brilliantly named Candieland Plantation, run by the charming yet deadly Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They gain the slave owner’s trust by posing as buyers of ‘Mandingo’ fighters while secretly plotting to steal Broomhilda away from under the nose of Candie and his grotesque head servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
The first thing that strikes you about Django Unchained is just how pitch perfect most of its central performances are. Foxx does sterling work as Django, but his low-key turn gets dwarfed somewhat by the bravura performances of those around him. Waltz is fully deserving of his Oscar nod and turns in a compelling performance as the razor-sharp bounty hunter who seems to be a step ahead of every one at each turn. Over the course of this and Inglorious Basterds, Waltz has truly mastered the art of delivering Tarantino’s signature style of dialogue. DiCaprio is extremely effective as the pampered yet dictatorial Candie, on the surface a calm and thoughtful young man but underneath a vile, sadistic and brutal bully. Finally Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is a wonderfully malevolent screen creation. Hunched over and filled with bilious rage, Stephen has bought into his master’s racial beliefs with a vengeance and his apoplectic reaction to a black man being allowed into ‘the big house’ is at first amusing but nevertheless possesses a particularly sinister undertone.
As one would expect from the subject matter and the back catalogue of the director, the violence is uncompromising and common and the bloodshed splashed about equally liberally. One scene in particular, where two Mandingo fighters engage in a vicious, eye-popping, hammer-splattering, fight to the death, is so extreme that it almost becomes difficult to watch. Tarantino has made no secret of the fact that he wanted to show the genuine brutality of the slavery era and he certainly made good on his intention. It was always going to be difficult for him to balance his penchant for hyper-real and overblown violence with the harsh realities of slave life, but for the most part he pulls it off well and the horrors of the lashings and ‘the hot box’ aren’t in any way weakened through being delivered in his inimitable style.
The dialogue is as slick and memorable as you might expect with Waltz and DiCaprio’s verbal sparring a particular highlight. The liberal use of the ‘N’ word has been the cause of some unease in certain circles but while the director does in his previous works seem to have an unhealthy obsession with that word, given the setting of Django, it seems only fitting that it used so regularly and vitriolically.
From the moment Schultz and Django arrive at Candieland, the tension slowly escalates and you are permanently waiting for Candie to suss out their ruse. DiCaprio comes into his own during a drawn-out meal sequence where the key players all sit around a table, weighted on by Candie’s servants as Stephen hovers menacingly on his bosses shoulder. Despite his charm and broad smile, you are waiting for Candie to explode and the distrust and rage that bubbles under the surface throughout the scene is expertly done by Tarantino.
Despite its brutal nature and uncomfortable subject matter, Django still packs some laugh out loud moments, from the shocked townspeople being unable to comprehend seeing a black man on a horse and the wonderfully slapdash KKK raid to Django’s garish first choice of outfit. The Tarantino sense of cool and swaggering bravado is also present and correct and it’s this touch of flair which ensures the movie is at its heart an enjoyably wild movie despite the subject matter.
In many ways it’s one of the director’s more conventional films in terms of its style. There are no multiple story strands and the one central storyline is told in uncharacteristically linear manner. Even the biggest Tarantino fan however would struggle to argue that it isn’t too long. There’s clearly a good twenty minutes or more of material which could have been chopped off, the majority of which comes in the film’s final scenes where the director himself makes his usual ill-advised cameo. Yet while it does drag on for just a bit too long, it still remain a coherent and engrossing movie.
I know one person who said they were a bit unsure whether to go and see Django Unchained as they weren’t a big fan of Westerns. In many ways though, such worries need not be an issue. Far from being a typical ‘Western’ movie, it’s far more accurate to say that it’s a typical Tarantino movie which happens to be set against a backdrop we would normally associate with the Western genre. The director has done what he does best, blending violence, dark humour and frenetic energy to make a thoroughly entertaining and stylish movie buoyed by some top draw performances.
Rating: (yeah I used half marks….sue me)