WARNING – This review contains some film spoilers!
Tarantino marks his return to cinema following 2009’s Inglourious Basterds with a real ballsy, gutsy effort. Django Unchained, nodding its ten-gallon hat courteously to the Basterds, is a real raucous, blood-lathered brawl of a film.
Indeed very few of Hollywood’s shining names are spared the grizzliest of endings. Jamie Foxx’s cool, calm reserve acts as the fulcrum, which accommodates the pyrotechnics of Waltz, DiCaprio, Jackson and company, who all harbour the film’s real firepower. Despite the presence of all these strong actors, the film never seems like an arm wrestle for superiority like I thought it would. Tarantino has found a way to perfectly balance his stars, allowing them to feed off each other and exist in an atmosphere that is beneficial to the film, instead of settling with the one man show that is so synonymous with contemporary Hollywood cinematography. His actors may hold the arsenal of Colt and Remington guns, but Tarantino is the willing provider of ammunition; he is the iron lung to which his actors are entirely indebted.
The film, modelled primarily on the Sergio Leone spaghetti western, deals with the much-tabooed subject of slavery. There could have been a tendency for Tarantino to smother the film with this subject matter, portraying the slave narrative is of course a very brave action for any film, and can’t be treated lightly; however this problem is averted by blending together a real collage of genres. Django (Jamie Foxx), much like the Chaucerian chivalric Knight, sets about saving his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the psychopathic Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) Candieland plantation. Further in keeping with the western feel, Django is adept in the role as the gunslinger, and works with the aptly named European Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) in the bounty hunting business.
To the colour-blind eye of Shultz, Django is as white as Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef. Tarantino notes the importance of having a multi-genre film; he stated at a press conference “I actually thought it [the film] could be better if it was wrapped up in genre,” in this respect, the film can’t be ‘boxed in’. Django Unchained works because it traverses so many different alleyways of genre, illuminating multiple plot possibilities, yet the film remains focused on those features of a Tarantino film that are so important; glorious violence and bloodshed! These features draw the film together, ironically giving it shape; when all our characters are being decimated by unerring violence, the audience is reminded whose film they are watching!
Of course Foxx’s Django is unlike no other slave we have seen before, but he is not the only character who mercilessly rips up the slave guidelines; Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is so badly indoctrinated with the notion of white supremacy, that he has become almost white himself. As Django goes about his murderous revenge spree, he tells Stephen to stay with his white over bearers, he is ‘right where he is supposed to be’, and Stephen gets his just deserts. Jackson’s character is unlike anything we are familiar with when discussing slave narratives, as he said in an interview that Stephen ‘takes what people know as Uncle Tom and turns it on its head in a powerful way’. Tarantino implies that in this antebellum society your skin colour does not define good and evil; Stephen is as evil as Calvin Candie, ruthlessly continuing the racist manifesto after his master’s death.
Further notable performances include Christoph Waltz’s playfully dark Dr. Shultz, the dentist-cum-bounty hunter; Waltz is so effective in this role because of his prior experience with Tarantino. He is majestic in Inglourious Basterds as the villainous Hans Landa and in a role not too dissimilar; Shultz is able to cleave the line between charming and murderous.
DiCaprio is marvellously detestable as Candie, and he admits that this role scared him half to death; in a recent press conference, DiCaprio gave a great biography of Candie, describing him as “representing everything that was wrong with the south at the time.” DiCaprio becomes effortlessly brutal and delirious, ripping apart the skull of a former favourite slave (possibly Tarantino nodding to ‘poor Yorick’ in Hamlet) in a heartless scientific experiment. Candie revels in violence, smiling and laughing gaily as he witnesses the vicious fight-to-the-death between two slaves. The audience doesn’t root for Django because he is black; we root for Django because Candie is a very special kind of bad guy.
As is regularly the case with Tarantino’s films, the use of violence is drawing fire from the critics. As always, Tarantino will make no apology for the film’s content; he informed a recent interviewer that he has “no responsibility for what a whacked out, crazy person might do.” This is unbiased violence from the king of carnage, as he makes an appearance and then ceremoniously blows himself up; it would seem that no one, not even the director, would be spared from the bloodshed.
Tarantino will always have his critics, this is a by-product of what he does; but for those that love his work, Django Unchained is no exception to what we are used to. The great man is back with a great cast and a great story. Watch it with your anorak on, because you can’t help but become involved in this marvellous blood bath of a film.
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