As well as much-loved entities in their own right, Quentin Tarantino’s movies act like a gateway into the director’s eclectic videotape library of genre and world cinema. How many movie fans discovered Ringo Lam’s City On Fire after seeing Reservoir Dogs, or Sonny Chiba’s back catalogue of movies through Kill Bill?
With Django Unchained, Tarantino turns his attention to the spaghetti western, his most obvious model being Sergio Corbucci’s Django, a film whose bloody violence irked the BBFC back in the 60s. Christoph Waltz plays Schultz, a bounty hunter of German descent who rides around 1850s Southern America in the guise of an itinerant dentist. He frees the enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx) whom he hopes will help him identify the Brittle Brothers, a gang of criminals whose bodies are worth a fortune in bounty.
The two set off together on their trail, but Django has a goal of his own: locating his lost love Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and avenging himself on the masters who’ve treated him so cruelly. Thereafter, Django Unchained unfolds episodically, with Schultz and Django moving from town to town and from one bloody (and often darkly amusing) encounter to the other.
Tarantino directs with all his self-conscious panache, swooping his camera around, zooming his lens, decorating sets with blood, and riveting us in our seats with a range of teacup-rattling songs – some appealingly appropriate, others jarringly anachronistic.
What carries much of the film, though, is Christoph Waltz’s extraordinary charisma, as he relishes every line of Tarantino’s grandiose dialogue. Appropriately for Tarantino, whose pictures so often draw attention to the artifice of filmmaking, Waltz is an actor playing an actor: Schultz is a slick, moustache-smoothing confidence trickster, as adept at talking his way out of deadly situations as he is at shooting people dead. In fact, many of Django Unchained’s most entertaining and intense scenes involve watching exactly how Schultz is going to chat his way out of another calamitous, seemingly inescapable encounter.
Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, plays Django as the silent yet deadly gunslinger archetype, in that he does a lot of acting with his eyes and spends entire scenes with his mouth shut. Where other actors get to talk themselves hoarse through the course of the movie’s expansive 165 minutes, Foxx says very little. Tarantino is careful to frame the top half of his face, emphasising every shark-like glare and embittered sidelong glance.
Tarantino’s standing as one of modern cinema’s great auteurs has meant he’s long enjoyed the pick of Hollywood’s finest actors, and Django Unchained features some big names in conspicuously tiny roles. Don Johnson plays a rampaging landowner called Big Daddy, who enjoys a particularly funny scene with Jonah Hill (who has all of two lines) in which he and a posse of other dim-witted proto clansmen argue about the size of the eye-holes in their white sackcloth masks.
Eventually, Schultz and Django make the acquaintance of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), another landowner of considerable wealth, who relaxes by watching slaves beat one another to death. In a film packed full of great performers vying for our attention, DiCaprio towers over almost all of them. It’s as though the decades of playing buttoned-up, largely heroic men of virtue have left him clamouring to throw off some shackles of his own, and in his finest moments, he plays Candie like a raging monster.
Samuel L Jackson, who turns up late in the film in a surprising role, is almost his equal, and his presence appears to underline Tarantino’s point about this brutal period in American history: evil transcends all races and classes.
In among all the bloodshed, slick dialogue and bravura performances, Django Unchained is a compelling, bold sketch of cruelty in 19th century America. As in Inglourious Basterds, the sudden switches between humour and outright nastiness are often disturbing, and may even make some wonder whether Tarantino isn’t exploiting historical atrocities for sensationalistic effect. But then again, the director’s unflinching portrayal of several aspects of life as a slave during the period are shown, and if nothing else, they’ll give people flocking to multiplexes in the hopes of seeing another pastiche-filled action film an impromptu and important history lesson.
There’s a brief, pointed yet very good demonstration of how those in power used anything to hand – religion, bullshit science – to justify their dehumanisation of an entire race. The film also points out that, with the offer of money, those in power are quite happy to put their supposed principles aside.
Make no mistake, though: Django Unchained is still a pastiche-filled action film, and even among all the grim occurrences, Tarantino keeps smiling on, either behind the camera or in front of it, with an expected and rather distracting cameo appearance.
The film reaches its zenith at Candie’s ranch, where an extended dinner conversation gradually ramps up in tension to scintillating effect. Performances are almost at boiling point, and Foxx is also great here, even with barely a handful of lines to utter. Thereafter, Tarantino allows the tension to dissipate, tacking on a lengthy and violent coda that meanders when we should arguably have already left the cinema.
Django Unchained therefore falls between two stools. Its violence (which often looks more like a John Woo shoot-em-up than a 60s western), showiness and retro stylings serve as a distraction from some of its quite brilliant moments of drama, yet those hoping for a straightforward action bloodbath like Kill Bill may seem a little short-changed by all the travelling around on horses and silver-tongued chatter.
Naturally, there’s lots for Tarantino fans to revel in here, from its dialogue (as a screenwriter, he shows a real flair for Victorian verbosity here, it must be said) to its editing and camera moves. But ultimately, Django Unchained comes alive in individual scenes and performances rather than as an entertaining whole.
The most effective sequence – from a pure, visual storytelling point of view – sees a group of maids quietly set the table for dinner. They’re filmed moving in perfect unison, like automata, as they smooth the napkins, lay the knives and forks just so. The quiet brilliance of this moment, which evokes so much pathos, hints at another filmmaker at work – one operating behind Tarantino’s surface sheen of loud music and gunplay.
Had Tarantino packed away his tricks and cinematic revolving bow-ties, maybe Django Unchained wouldn’t have just been an entertaining, occasionallly brilliant genre homage, but also a film capable of stunning us into silence.
Django Unchained opens on the 18th January 2013 in the UK.
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