There’s a point towards the end of Django Unchained where a thing happens to a thing (no spoilers here), and a thing walks away from it as the awesome soundtrack kicks in, and your heart shoots up the back of your throat and you gasp a little. Even though he never really went away, in that moment of badassery you get a rush and a thrill as you realise Quentin Tarantino is back.
The 49-year-old director has been having fun with the genre selection box
in recent years. After tackling the war movie with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, the concept behind Django Unchained is that it’s a Western, set in the Deep South, in the 1850s slavery era. It’s a Southern, if you will.
It begins with the slave referred to in the film’s title (played by Jamie Foxx) being freed by a kindly German dentist-cum-assassin called Dr Schultz (Christopher Waltz). Through a series of convoluted coincidences the pair become partners, picking off bad folks for cash, eventually hatching a plan to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of evil plantation owner Calvin Candie, brought to life by a deliciously moustache-twirling turn from Leo DiCaprio. What follows is part road trip, part buddy movie, part revenge thriller, part love story. Most importantly, though, it’s full-on Tarantino, filled with fizzing, zappy dialogue and a colossal body count.
This being Quentin, it’s a dementedly hyper-real version of all that, with plausibility stretched for the sake of killer one-liners and the violence ramped up to ‘extreme’ for laughs. But the film doesn’t flinch from the harrowing nature of its subject matter, and even during its most riotous moments the tone often shifts to portray the brutal realities of slavery. As a result there are a number of deeply unpleasant moments in Django Unchained and, even for a period piece, the regularity with which ‘the n-word’ is used becomes a bit much.
But the absolute best thing about Django Unchained is the quality of the performances, and you rarely get the chance to see such an embarrassment of icons having such a good time. Jamie Foxx smoulders effortlessly in the title role, originally written for a now presumably rather annoyed Will Smith. Waltz brings real heart to what lesser hands would have portrayed as wisecracking comic relief, and DiCaprio’s Candie is a tantalisingly special kind of monster, played with a rare kind of relish. There aren’t many words for how wonderful Samuel L. Jackson is as Candie’s manservant Stephen.
No film really needs to go on for three hours – there’s probably a 120-minute 10/10 film fighting to get out of this – but at least Tarantino is faithful to the form, what with classic Westerns being incredibly long and all.
And even with its sparse plot, Django Unchained never leaves you bored. As such, Tarantino hasn’t felt this vital since the mid-90s.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson