Fresh from putting his name to the unholy mess that was The Man with the Iron Fists, Quentin Tarantino is back behind the camera for Django Unchained. The story is that of a bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs a certain slave to identify one of his targets. Django (Jamie Foxx) is that slave and the pair quickly become equals and allies who take on the might of plantation and slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino has never been known to shy away from a potentially controversial story. Inglorious Basterds was a film that played fast and loose with history for the sake of telling a contentious, violent but slick story. The same can be said for Django Unchained. The characters may not actually be the politicians who fought both for and against slavery in the US – Lincoln is looming on the horizon, so Tarantino wisely left the politics well enough alone – but these are characters that operate on the level of morality and their own beliefs in right and wrong. Some are horrifically crass and cruel, so if you are not a fan of the ‘N’ word – you know the one – then you may be best to steer clear.
Anyway… Jamie Foxx plays Django, an African American slave who suffers the brutality visited upon him until Schultz gives him his freedom. Foxx plays Django as both solemn and violent; after years of abuse, the time has come for killing some white folks, and Django relishes the task. Foxx is fearless and fierce, and he does the character proud.
Christoph Waltz returns to the director that brought him to international attention, but Dr. King could not be any different than Colonel Landa in Inglorious Basterds. Waltz is gentle and caring, and he eventually becomes a father figure to the newly freed Django. Waltz is articulate, funny, and the twinkle of mischief in his eye is still there.
Correct me if I am wrong, but this is the first time that Leonardo DiCaprio has played a villain in the true sense of the word. Calvin Candie is a pot of passive aggression with a whole lot of menace bubbling under the surface. DiCaprio is obviously having a lot of fun here, and if there is a hint of his performance being superficial, then this is the fault of the character – whose secrets are not too far beneath the surface – rather than the actor. Samuel L. Jackson plays a hateful character; Stephen, the long serving, institutionalised head of Candie’s household. Steven brings a while new level of evil and manipulation to the house, and Jackson has rarely been better.
Yes, the performances are fantastic, but there are problems with the film, and they fall to Tarantino. As a director and filmmaker, Tarantino has become known for his impressive dialogue and heavily stylised brand of visual filmmaking. In Django the latter is almost absent, meaning that while this sounds like a Tarantino film in terms of dialogue and music, it is the least ‘Tarantino’ that a Tarantino film has been to date.
I’ll stop saying Tarantino now. Sorry.
The visual aside, Tarantino (drat!) directs with flair, as usual. The over the top violence is as cartoonish as ever, and the threat of said violence colours the entire film. The dialogue is top notch, the pacing is just right, and there is no fear of the writer/director shying away from anything that may offend or cause controversy. In this way, Django Unchained is utterly enlightening about the hypocrisy, power grabbing and evil that was (and is?) at the heart of slavery. As well as this, Tarantino’s love of the spaghetti western has not diminished since his foray into the style with Kill Bill Vol. 2, and it is clear that Django Unchained is a love letter to the films that inspired the writer/director. Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and John Ford are lovingly exploited in a way that only Tarantino can do, it’s just a shame that Tarantino’s cameo and horrific accent were not as well thought out.
Django Unchained is an unflinching examination of slavery in the US – those that allowed it to flourish, those that did not and those that actively fought against it – all told in the typical Tarantino style, albeit slightly watered down. Waltz, Foxx, DiCaprio and Jackson shine in a dirty story about dirty times.