After paying homage to the genre in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has finally bitten the bullet and made an unashamed Spaghetti western. And he’s done it in the manner that only the most popular maverick of American independent cinema could. Named Django Unchained after the ubiquitous gunslinger first played by Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django, Tarantino’s pulpy, subversive and already controversial update re-imagines the character as a freed slave who teams up with a bounty hunter in order to rescue his wife from her cruel white master deep in the American South. The resulting film is guilty of almost every indulgence the filmmaker has ever been accused of, from playing fast and loose with history to liberal usage of racial epitaphs, gruesome violence and running time almost three hours in length. But it’s hard to hold it against him, when the results are this bloody good.
Texas, two years before the onset of the American Civil War: a pair of slave traders drive their cargo through the desert. Amongst the unfortunate souls, his back a maze of vicious lash scars, is Django (Jamie Foxx; Horrible Bosses), recently sold by his master as punishment for running away. But his life in captivity comes to an end when he is tracked down by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz; Inglourious Basterds), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who needs Django’s help to locate his next prize. In return, he promises to grant Django his freedom and aid him in his quest to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington; Lakeview Terrace) from her new owner, an affluent and extremely dangerous plantation owner by the name of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio; Inception).
Long, loquacious and loaded with profanity and carnage, Django Unchained is not going to win its director many new fans. But for those who already love him – and there are plenty of us out there – the film is an absolute blast. In the same way that Kill Bill paid tribute through imitation to Japanese samurai and Chinese kung fu films, Django Unchained serves as Tarantino’s blood splattered love letter to the work of Leone (A Fistful of Dollars), Corbucci (Django, The Great Silence), Sollima (The Big Gundown) and probably dozens of other filmmakers who most of us have never even heard of, but whose movies’ Tarantino can no doubt recite verbatim. Cinematographer Robert Richardson captures the aesthetic of such films beautifully, from the panoramic wide shots of the stunning American landscape, right down to the fast, delightfully antiquated crash-zooms knowingly peppered throughout.
Still, Django Unchained, like all of Tarantino’s films, is more than just simple imitation. Music by legendary western composer Ennio Morricone abounds, but so do rap tracks and songs by James Brown and Johnny Cash; anachronisms that cement the film as a strange cinematic fantasy in which the narratives of the Old West and Deep South are daringly, bloodily rewritten. Foxx’s Django is part Clint Eastwood, part Richard Roundtree; an improbably cool blaxploitation-style hero sent back in time by Tarantino to exorcise racial demons through cathartic bloodletting. As an exercise in gory historical revisionism, Django Unchained is very much a spiritual sequel to Inglourious Basterds, in that it uses B-movie trappings and a pitch black sense humour to address one of the darkest periods in all of human history (and in doing so, give the oppressed the chance, through cinema, for the payback that reality deprived them).
Across from Foxx is Christoph Waltz, whose part as the evil SS Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds made him an Oscar winner and household name. The verbose, wide-smiled Austrian actor is every bit as witty, debonair and dangerous here, though this time his role is that of a hero. Taking over as bad guy is Leonardo DiCaprio, who ironically enough was actually Tarantino’s original choice for Landa. How the Hollywood star might have done in that part it’s impossible to say; what can be said, however, is that his portrayal of the loathsome Calvin Candie is destined to be remembered alongside Waltz’s sinister Nazi officer as one of the most memorable villainous performances of the early twenty-first century. DiCaprio plays the character as the ultimate personification of the evils of the American slave owner, his extravagant Southern hospitality doing little to mask the bigotry, self-centeredness and sadism that allowed the despicable practice to take root.
But as good as they both are, it is neither Waltz nor DiCaprio who deliver the film’s stand-out performance. That gong goes to Samuel L. Jackson (The Avengers), whose best work often occurs when paired with Tarantino (as in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), but whose outlandish and deeply troubling turn as Candie’s head house slave Stephen may be the greatest performance of his entire, hundred plus film career. A tottering, profane old sycophant, Stephen is a product of institutionalised slavery; so obsessively loyal to his master that he actively participates in perpetuating the system that enslaves him. It’s an uncomfortable character, equal parts funny, pitiable and vile, and one that could have easily been turned into caricature. But Jackson, whose tendency to just play exaggerated versions of himself makes it easy to forget how good he can be, judges it’s perfectly.
It’s because of things like Jackson’s performance that you have to question those who have accused Tarantino of trivialising slavery. Presumably such proclamations stem from the perception that art that deals with such issues must be unyielding staid and respectful. In truth, there have been conspicuously few American films made about slavery, but certainly Django Unchained is a far cry from, say, Amistad or Glory; there is no kowtowing seriousness here to placate political correctness or soothe white guilt. Tarantino’s primary influences are, as they’ve always been, Spaghetti westerns, crime flicks and exploitation movies. In other words, films that are entertaining. Yet one cannot watch Django Unchained and come to the conclusion that slavery was anything but the unconscionable practice that it was. While the film’s gunfights are stylised, a scene in which a runaway slave is torn apart by dogs is not gratuitous or distasteful, but appropriately grizzly and disturbing.
Ultimately however, as with his cartoonish portrayal of Hitler and the German high command in Basterds, Tarantino posits that the best way to deal with bigots is to mock them as the imbeciles that they are – hence the scene here in which a redneck gang of proto-Ku Klux Klansmen bicker about their vision-impairing headwear. It’s in moments like these that the true star of Django Unchained is revealed; not any one actor, but Tarantino’s writing. His dialogue here is as smart and funny as it’s ever been; his scenarios bold and unpredictable. Characters wax poetical at inordinate length, and the result is utterly gripping (if the extended dinner table scene between Django, Shultz and Candie isn’t as tense and unnerving as the tavern sequence from Basterds, it certainly comes damn near close). This movie is first and foremost fun. That it’s also “about” something is merely an added bonus.