Quentin Tarantino continues to justify his superstar status on the world’s cinema stage with latest film Django Unchained, his brilliant, bloody and thrillingly unpredictable revenge western about a freed slave unleashing hell on his plantation-owning enemies in the pre-Civil War American South of 1858.
Sort of an artistic companion piece to his audacious, history rewriting Second World War epic Inglourious Basterds, the film once again sees him taking a serious subject matter and moulding it into a deranged alternate universe, one in which the barbarity of a heinous system of oppression is exposed and cathartically avenged in ruthless and savage fashion.
Writer/Director Tarantino has paid his unique homage to plenty of genres before now; the gangster (Pulp Fiction), martial arts (Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2), the grindhouse horror (Death Proof). Now he’s revived the spaghetti western with his usual fanboy enthusiasm.
In Django Unchained, German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys and frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx). In exchange for Django’s help in identifying three men with big bounties on their heads, Schultz agrees to help him find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whom he’s been forcibly and maliciously separated. Shultz, a loquacious, progressive, cultivated fellow who abhors slavery is pretty much the closest thing the film has to a character with a modern perspective and he frequently threatens to steal the movie.
Unfortunately for Django, his wife is working on the notorious Candyland plantation in the Deep South of Mississippi, owned by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who enjoys nothing more than sweets and blood sports in equal measure.
As per usual, Tarantino uses his specific brand of comic violence – almost as much as he uses uninterrupted, drawn-out monologues. There are gallons of blood, exploding body parts and unflinching cruelty.
As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant.
Jamie Foxx, however, has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife. He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down – in all honesty, he’s a bit of a bore.
His plantation-working wife isn’t much better - Broomhilda is severely underwritten and her character never really shines through the trauma she endures.
Lucky for us, then, that Di Capri and Jackson are on hand to distract us from this problem- Leo’s portrayal of the bubbling sadism beneath the plantation owner’s charming veneer is spine-chillingly good while Jackson’s turn as Candie’s doddering henchmen, complete with oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair, also adds to the edge of unpredictable menace.
Primarily, however, this is a Tarantino film. Yes, he’s stuck reverentially to genre stalwarts, but you only need to see that the soundtrack features a James Brown/2Pac amalgamation to know this is no traditional spaghetti western. Although it’s too long and arguably self-indulgent, it’s big, crazy, and hugely entertaining.
A fierce but fiercely intelligent testament to Tarantino’s frequently questioned filmmaking proclivities and certainly among the best films he’s ever made.