A new Quentin Tarantino film is always an exciting addition to the cinema year, and with his latest, Django Unchained, I was once again blown out of my chair. It is further evidence that QT, an unabashed film lover whose screenplays possess some of the sharpest and funniest dialogue to ever grace the screen, is one of the most daring filmmakers in the business. Here he tackles pre-Civil War era America, with racism and slavery at its most despicable, in the style of a Spaghetti Western. Like his 2009 masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, he re-writes the history books his own way, offering up a canvas equally entertaining and confronting. With stunningly orchestrated and meticulously coordinated set pieces, equipped with hilarious exchanges, bursts of bloody violence and terrific musical accompaniment, Tarantino displays a veteran sense of shrewd consideration and effortless assurance.
We are first introduced to the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) as a male slave being transported across Texas as part of a chain gang. An encounter with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German travelling dentist-turned-bounty hunter, leads to Django’s freedom and the formation of an agreement between the unlikely pair. Django is to help Schultz search for and identify a trio of ruthless killers, and he in turn will be sent on his way. Their adventures result in Schultz molding Django into his associate, and when Django reveals that his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), was sold away from him years earlier, they decide to locate her. Schultz creates a guise for the pair as potential purchasers of a Mandingo fighter – slaves forced to fight to their deaths for entertainment and gambling purposes - and devises a plan to free her from her current owner, the charismatic but merciless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), proprietor of a thriving plantation known as Candyland.
Schultz reveals early on that he despises slavery, and while he at first releases Django for his own potential financial gain, he begins to see Django as a potential liberator, and he realizes he can play a role in channeling his pain. Schultz desires to see slavery abolished, but he knows he can’t make a difference. He hasn’t lived the hardships, or experienced the loss that Django has, so he cannot be the source of retribution.
While Shultz has no qualms killing the white southerners with a price on their head, he is clearly distressed by the atrocities he witnesses against slaves. When Candie sets dogs on a runaway Mandingo fighter, the camera doesn’t show the maul in all of its horribleness, we just get a glimpse, and that’s enough to feel ill. The same goes for a brutal Mandingo fight in progress when we are first introduced to Candie. There is a sound argument that Schultz is the moral centre of the film. This is a man who doesn’t just win us over with his eloquent wordplay, but also with his ability to maintain his charming guise under pressure, despite his blood boiling beneath the surface. Tarantino, in the past, has used violence as a key part of his entertainment, and he does so again here. The violent finale and many of the deaths in Django are cartoonish and over-the-top, but he has also utilized it to convey a potent message and provoke emotion.
Plenty of attention has been focused on Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, Candie’s loyal house slave Stephen, but Foxx’s journey from portraying a broken man, to a sharp-dudded horse-backed valet, to fully fledged gunslinger works because Foxx relays so much through his eyes – sadness, hatred, rage, but above all this brewing confidence – and though quiet and soft spoken he is the perfect complement to silver-tongued Waltz, arguably the star of the show. As mentioned before his role is a meaty one and he seems to relish giving Tarantino’s soaring dialogue his own cheerful-come-reasonable-come-aggressive delivery. Like Ingloriuous Basterds he steals many scenes. Detractors to DiCaprio should watch this film and eat their words. Talk about a diversion from the norm. What an irregular, volatile, cruel and foolish individual. Jackson is nearly unrecognisable as Candie’s bent, graying watch dog – a man so dedicated to his role (having known no other) that he willingly sides with his owner when his suspicions of Django are aroused. Jackson is quietly menacing, but his jubilantly bonkers entry is one of the many memorable moments.
Tarantino has infused within his adoration for the Spaghetti Western, likely with many throwbacks I didn’t recognise, and surprise cameos. Credit must go to Robert Richardson for his luscious photography, including a series of flashbacks that play as an archive of old reels, J. Michael Riva’s production design, and Tarantino for selecting a badass soundtrack. The title track is amazing, but how about where he brings in James Brown and 2Pac and utilises Ennio Morricone.
One misjudged sequence amidst the climax potentially could take one briefly out of the film. It is unnecessarily indulgent, clumsy and an awkward blip on an otherwise stunning cinematic experience.
Django Unchained is creative and extravagant, brilliantly written, powerfully performed and it balances a rich concoction with masterful nuance – simultaneously being giddily entertaining and provocatively (controversially) unsettling. The subject matter is sensitive; the stain on America’s history is repulsive, but it is extraordinary how funny this film is without ever being exploitive or offensive and how serious it is in its disquisition. It remarkably exposes the heinous brutality of all levels of slavery, but can also be read as a series of fascinating and enlightening character studies.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.