There are still some people around who think that Tarantino is nothing more than a director who takes a bunch of movie and pop culture references and shoehorns them into whatever particular genre script he decides to create. There’s an element of truth to that, but it’s also an easy way to incorrectly dismiss one of the most important auteurs in modern cinema. Tarantino does have more to him, he does have things to say that are important, but he can couch it all within the language of cinema. From start to finish, his movies are a tapestry woven from over a century of film. I’m aware that I am in danger of disappearing up my own posterior so I will do my best to leave it at that. Suffice to say, Tarantino is a huge fan of a lot of cinema that I’m a huge fan of and so, therefore, I’m a huge fan of Tarantino.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not such a huge fan of slavery. Neither, it would seem, is Tarantino (thankfully) and Django Unchained takes his particular sensibility and intertwines it with a Spaghetti Western that uses the genre trappings to explore some of the conditions and the mistreatment of African Americans during that heartily embarrassing time when slavery was seen as the norm.
The hero of the movie, Django (played by Jamie Foxx, who shares his name with a giant of the Western genre even though he is NOT that same character), is actually a slave who has been fortunate enough to attain his freedom. That came about thanks to the assistance and kindness of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), but there is a reason for his act of charity. Dr. Schultz would like Django to help him identify some criminals he is hunting for bounty. He treats Django as an equal and even decided to help him when their futures seem to converge on one man, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the infamous owner of a plantation named Candyland and also the man who has Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), in his possession. As the pre-release publicity has informed everyone; The D is silent. Payback won’t be.
I really don’t know where to begin with the praise here, mainly for fear that I’ll just not stop once I start rambling on. Tarantino is on his usual top form with the script and direction. The dialogue isn’t for the easily offended and nor is any of the more violent content. Having said that, he somehow manages to provide an entertaining, blood-soaked Western and also a primer on how awful the conditions and mentalities were for slaves and their owners. It skates, seemingly effortlessly, between and around both objectives and then keeps piling on more to enjoy – the scene with the regulators, forerunners to the KKK, is just about the funniest thing I’ve seen in any movie in the past few years and up there with the best of Blazing Saddles. It’s true that he indulges himself a bit too much in the last half hour, but he’s earned plenty of goodwill up to that point and even when he appears onscreen, with an awful Australian accent, it’s not enough to hold against him.
The cast are superb, one and all. Jamie Foxx is as cool as can be and makes for a great hero, but the star of the show is Christoph Waltz. It’s hard to say whether or not this tops his performance in Inglourious Basterds, but I’d definitely call it a close run thing. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t start off too strong, and I’ll admit that I was wondering why he’d already had so much praise heaped upon him, but after 5-10 minutes he settles right into the character and gives a mesmerising performance right up until his last scene. Samuel L. Jackson is similarly powerful as a slave who helps his boss to run the household and will do whatever it takes to keep himself in a position of comfort. Kerry Washington is believably desirable as Broomhilda, Walton Goggins is a typical bully working for Candie and James Remar is so great that he gets two roles. The supporting cast, as you would expect, features a real mix of great faces and character actors. Don Johnson has fun with his small role, Jonah Hill appears for a few minutes and actually works perfectly in the role that he’s given and Michael Parks and John Jarratt and Bruce Dern and M. C. Gainey and James Russo and many others all have fun with small, but perfectly formed, moments of movie magic. Of course, Franco Nero (the man who IS Django for so many fans) has a memorable cameo.
This won’t necessarily win Tarantino any new fans, but then again, there are some moments here that just might. The narrative is more linear and straightforward than any of his previous movies and it is, arguably, full of more moments of pure satisfaction than any of his previous outings. In other words, this is up there with his very best.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: QUENTIN TARANTINO
STARS: JAMIE FOXX, CHRISTOPH WALTZ, LEONARDO DICAPRIO, KERRY WASHINGTON, SAMUEL L. JACKSON, WALTON GOGGINS, JAMES REMAR
RUNTIME: 165 MINS APPROX