banner image

:: Django Unchained

As one of the most self-assured contemporary auteurs, Quentin Tarantino remains a name worthy of the attention it receives. While the 90s housed what Tarantino has confusingly labeled his “realer than real life” films, his New Millennium oeuvre has more blatantly operated in its own self-conscious, postmodern filmic reality. And within this world, in a manner not at all dissimilar to Godard, Tarantino is living out a film geek’s fantasy; dipping into genres at will and cross-breeding them into his own mutant creations. Since 2003, Tarantino has put his stamp on the samurai film, the exploitation B-Movie, the WWII Adventure film and most recently, the Spaghetti Western, resurrecting the 1960’s legend of Django in Django Unchained.

Two years before the Civil War in the South, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is “purchased” by the eccentric German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of three dangerous killers, the Brittle Brothers, and only Django can identify them. Schultz promises to free Django after he has claimed his bounty. However once the deal is done, Django and Schultz do not part ways but instead team up in order to find Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was lost in the slave trade long ago. Their search eventually leads them to the notorious Candyland and its vicious proprietor, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Broomhilda is working as a “comfort girl”.

Tarantino is a writer-director that utilizes every nook and cranny of a script. From the landscape, to the larger-than-life Southern personalities, to the historical atrocities, to his unique hybridization of genre, Quentin delivers a story brimming with directorial confidence—it’s tight, it’s engaging, it’s primal. There is also a masterful control of tension exercised throughout, largely through the dialogue of characters such as Schultz, Candy and Candy’s house slave, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson). Too much dialogue often slackens a script but, as we have seen time and time again, Tarantino’s dialogue is his rhythm, building an, at times, exhausting tension of Hitchcockian calibre.

Drawing upon an incredible awareness of genre, Tarantino playfully frames Django Unchained’s slave narrative within the Spaghetti Western genre. Simple enough. Yet it transcends the mere aesthetic wankery of his would-be contemporaries by showcasing not only an appreciation of surface style-markers, but also an in-depth knowledge of the thematic mechanics of the competing genres. As it stands, Django Unchained is a racially-aware Spaghetti Western with Samurai Cinema sensibilities coupled with a Blaxploitation attitude—there are even Ozploitation nods as Tarantino makes a cameo as an ochre-sounding Aussie alongside homegrown Wolf Creek star, John Jarratt. Django Unchained is as whimsical as it is subversive but nonetheless brutally honest in its portrayal of the era’s depraved inhumanity.

The characters are superbly written and benefit from top-notch casting. The Southern psycopath Calvin Candie is taken to the necessary over-the-top heights by Leonardo DiCaprio. Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as Candy’s house slave: the wisecracking old black man who is just as malicious as his master. Jamie Foxx offers a restrained performance as the stoic Django that gets the job done. But the standout again is Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. The role seems to have been written for him and he is absolutely in his element here. Although a much more humane role than his Colonel Hans Lander, Waltz delivers his lines with the same precision and occupies a similarly complex tonal space somewhere between comedy and violence but without the sadistic edge of Lander. It’s a great role brought to life by a great actor.

The film’s only shortcoming is its ending. Written as a one-two punch finale with a humorous interim between blows, the final punch lacks the impact of the former and so we are unfortunately left in a mere shadow of a climax. If the film was 20 minutes shorter it would climax in the explosion of energy and drama it deserves, however as it stands, the finale is more akin to the final whimpering splutters of the last sparkler on a birthday cake, albeit dripping with blood. But hey, it still tastes good!

Quite simply if you like Tarantino, you’ll love this. It is up there with Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill as some of his best work.