After altering WWII history with Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino tackles the western genre in the US deep south. Sadly even Tarantino can’t undo the horrors of slavery, but he can damn well provide cathartic vengeance against racist sons of bitches!
Charting the journey of a man named Django from slave to bounty hunter to mythic legend, Tarantino has managed to almost free himself of slavish attempts at homage previously seen with the likes of Kill Bill. Directorial trademarks such as the Tarantino-esque trunk POV shot and foot fetish, and rambling dialogue about obscure things like Royales with cheese. None of these quirks are revisited, there’s no self-referential meta moments (well, except for the Franco Nero cameo!). Django Unchained is not Tarantino coasting by on his previous work. He’s forging onwards. It’s just a blistering man-on-a-mission tale told with style.
What’s happening in the background of Django Unchained is still to this day a hotbed for controversy. America still has race issues on its mind, despite the fact that a black man is President, he was still plagued with nonsensical claims against his legitimacy. But don’t be misled into believing Django is a thoughtful analysis of US history and race relations. Slavery is the backdrop, but the crux of the tale is of one man fighting to free his wife from bondage.
After the brilliantly conceived Basterds which was crammed full of symbolism and reverence; a love letter to the art of filmmaking, Django is quite stripped down and contains less secrets and subtext. This is not to say there is no substance to the film. It says a lot about the angle Tarantino is approaching the story from, when the only sympathetic white character is a non-American, and the only proactive black character is Django himself. “I know more about Americans than he does,” Django growls to someone while referring to the character King Schultz.
Django’s freedom and odyssey is due to a chance encounter with a travelling German bounty hunter played by the excellent Christoph Waltz. Waltz’s Schultz is a crowd-pleasing character if there ever was one, compassionate and charming, yet a man who loves to be convoluted, never doing things the easy way. At one point, Schultz says “our mutual friend has a flair for the dramatic” when he’s ironically referring to his own character.
After securing Django’s freedom, he enters into an alliance with him, partnering up for the winter as they hunt bounties, before finally agreeing to find Django’s wife and freeing her from a hilariously maniacal Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a brave, fearless performance as a plantation owner.
His Calvin Candie has a fondness for mandingo fighting which pits slave against slave; has rotten teeth, and when pushed to a corner reveals that he’s nothing but a boy with delusions of grandeur. DiCaprio tackles the role with relish, delivering every line with 100% commitment, you can’t take your eyes off him.
Candie is aided by an equally hilarious and very sneaky Samuel L. Jackson who reminds us why he’s a brilliant actor. Tarantino always brings out the best in the man who has seemingly coasted by on his reputation the last decade.
Rather than a comedic side-kick, Jackson’s ‘Stephen’, the top butler (to put it nicely) of the Candie residence, is probably the most complex character featured in the story, not necessarily a man with shades of grey, but a man who is a product of his environment and chose to stick to a side. Unfortunately the wrong one, when Django comes knocking.
The role of Django could have gone to Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams and interestingly Will Smith. After Jamie Foxx though, it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Django. Contrary to what I was expecting, he brings quiet intensity to his performance, though layers it with a hint of vulnerability. His voice is subdued, moody, and frankly badass. Iconic is a word that’s thrown around a lot in reviews, but I have no problem throwing it at him.
Tarantino throws in a training montage halfway through the film, but cheats a little in that Django is apparently a natural with the gun, so we don’t see a complete character arc from witless slave to badass hero, but regardless by the end Django has put to use the things he’s learnt with his time with Schultz and its glorious.
After the climax, the film continues for an extended resolution which is a bit awkward, but ultimately satisfying for the dispatching of an amazing villain, and to see Django utilise all that he’s learnt in the tale.
Django Unchained features liberal usage of quick camera zooms which honestly never gets old. There’s a cameo from Tarantino himself, but he might want to consider retiring from acting, judging by his non-presence during the short time he’s on screen. He has a random accent, and stuck out like a sore thumb, no matter how entertaining the scene he’s in is.
The soundtrack is eclectic Tarantino stuff as usual, a mixture of a few hip hop tracks, Morricone classics, the highlight being a beautiful Italian collaboration between Morricone with vocals by Elisa. It’s a stark contrast between modern music coupled with a bygone era, but feels so right.
The action is not as plentiful as you would expect and hope, but when it arrives boy does it impress with bucket-loads of crimson blood flowing across the screen like a tsunami.
Walton Goggins makes a brief appearance, typecast as a racist redneck for the millionth time in his career. Give the man something fresh, please! He’s great in everything.
Tarantino has claimed he’s aiming for a nice even number of films in his career, something like ten. As we’re more or less approaching that number, the kind of genres he can tackle are dwindling, but we can remain fairly confident that whatever he works on next, he will do it with relish and of course unchained like Django himself.