Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker whose name and ego seems to precede his films by quite a substantial degree. Since bursting onto the independent scene with the fantastic Reservoir Dogs in the early 1990’s his reputation and title as a ‘saviour’ of contemporary American cinema has grown rapidly, winning an astonishingly loyal fan base and even coining its own phrase; ‘Tarantinoesque’ which commonly refers to the trademark motormouth and foul mouthed dialogue that he revels in. Yet for the admiration that has been heaped upon him, Tarantino has found himself under growing accusations of plagiarism, violence for violence’s sake and the inability to rein in his work, spiralling off in all directions and drawing out what are essentially ‘B-Movies’ into epic lengths. His latest, his long planned Western, is arguably guilty of all of these and yet is handled with such bravura and panache that when all is said and done there is no denying that whether for better or worse, you are at the mercy of a force of nature behind the camera.
Shortly before the outbreak of the American civil war, Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed from a chain gang by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter who needs Django to identify a gang of outlaws he is hunting down. Quickly realising that Django has talent for the trade, Schultz forms an alliance to give him his freedom and rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the plantation she has been sold to. It is a journey that will take them across a surreal and profane landscape and ultimately to the doorstep of the extravagant and sadistic slave trader Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his unnervingly loyal servant Steven (Samuel L. Jackson).
Tarantino has made no secret of his love of the Western genre (though he has referred to this new work as a ‘Southern’). Motifs and visual allusions to the classic Spaghetti westerns of the 60’s and 70’s adorn his previous films along with the now typically anachronistic use of music from Ennio Morricone to present day rap tracks and everything in between. Django Unchained feels more like a sponge for pop culture than just a straight homage. That it works as well as it does is a testament to how horribly addictive Tarantino’s aesthetic is at its best. Profane soliloquies trip off the tongue, cameras swoop and crash zoom with grace and claret soaks the surroundings to a hysterically overemphasised effect. There is a killer in joke in which Franco Nero, the Italian superstar famed for playing the titular Django in a series of Italian westerns, meets his American namesake. The films setting, both historical and social, has brought controversy for Tarantino’s supposed fixation with racial epithets but the swerve and swagger on display as well as the overall theme of retribution puts aside accusations of racism on his part. As he did with Inglorious Basterds Tarantino has taken an idea (or at least a cinematic idea) of history that is emblazoned on our minds and has taken a switchblade to it and crafted a piece of postmodern beauty out of it (if beauty is the word you can use). He does this more effectively than he did in Basterds and in similar vein Kill Bill Vol.2 where he was indeed guilty of spinning off into a fan boy tangent and making the parts more than their sum. Whilst I do think the third act of Django could be tightened somewhat, it never becomes dull or trying. Long dialogue driven scenes, notably one set around a dinner table late on, throb with tension and a knowing wit. The payoffs are exceptionally enjoyable. It’s not just verbally that Tarantino excels; a jaw droppingly violent shootout stands next to the House Of Blue Leaves showdown in Kill Bill as proof he should be considered an action director of note.
Django Unchained also serves as a reminder for Tarantino’s other exceptional trademark; his ability to elicit magnificent performances from his ensembles. After the accolades he received for Inglorious Basterds it is no surprise to see Christoph Waltz reunite with the director and a joy it is to. He would seem to have been put onto this Earth for Tarantino’s words to have the pleasure of his delivery. His Schultz is savvy, charming, deadly, is smarter than everyone in the room and knows it. There is a line comically alluding to Schultz’s English being a second language. Whichever language which he delivers in (English, German or French) he remains masterful. Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly having a ball flitting effortlessly back and forth between comically debonair and psychopathic rage. Watch out for the scene where he loses his temper and smashes a glass with his hand. The result is not faked. Having spent many years playing the incredibly straight faced and dramatic lead, he proves a perfect foil for a more extravagant and comedic turn. Here’s hoping he plays to the advantage. Brilliant as these two are the films is very nearly stolen by Samuel L. Jackson as house servant Steven. The Uncle Tom from hell, balding, limping and in a constant state of bewilderment/silent rage Jackson relishes the ultimate in reverse stereotyping. It’s a role that if misjudged could have come across as extremely uncomfortable. Under his performance, it’s a scary and hysterical joy. Another larger than life performance could tip things too far over the edge yet Jamie Foxx wisely decides to play down any caricatures. His Django is a man of few words and big actions and when there are words they come like daggers. It’s a performance of quiet electricity.
Django Unchained is not perfect by any stretch. Part of me still would very much like to see Tarantino whittle down a project to under two hours and some of his choices of direction still raise an eyebrow. He casts himself in a cameo role with a bizarre and quite frankly terrible Australian accent that proves he should genuinely stay behind the camera than venture in front of it. Minor faults aside this is something of a comeback for Tarantino, ironic that he is considered the master of comebacks for actors. His devotees would argue he never went away but this is definitely in the upper tier and reminds you of his best. It’s like a shot of tequila; it burns the throat but the aftertaste is terrific.