In the mid 1990’s Quentin Tarantino grabbed the movie world by the dangly bits and announced himself as cinema’s new enfant terrible, agent provocateur and other French clichés. He is one of a select few directors who compel critics when reviewing his films to discuss him as much as the film itself, such is his impact and distinctive voice.
Tarantino’s films have always been a fascinating but precarious fusion of genre film and his snarky, provocative, pop-culture savant ideas. When this approach works, as in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, it’s magnificent when it doesn’t, as in Kill Bill 2, it’s a mess. So, which Tarantino turns up for Django Unchained, the exciting maverick Tarantino or the indulgent, undisciplined Tarantino? Actually, it’s a bit of both but mostly the one who knows how to ignite a film with thrilling action, mythic personalities and startling humour.
Tarantino clearly loves 60’s and 70’s genre exploitation film and with Django Unchained he combines the violent spaghetti western with the blaxploitation movie. Tarantino announces his spaghetti western homage right from the beginning with bold blood red, Sergio Leone-style opening credits and a soaring Tex Mex theme song.
Although set in the late 1850’s this is not your typical western as there’s no rugged, taciturn white man shooting up the bad guys and saving the day. Instead the heroes are a freed African American slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and a weird German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). Together they blow away criminals and Klansmen although Django’s real goal is to find his wife, the oddly named Broomhilde (Kerry Washington), who is still enslaved at the plantation of the strange sadistic fop Calvin Candy (Leonardo Di Caprio).
If you don’t like Tarantino’s work you’re going to have a hard time with this one because Django Unchained is one of his more confronting films. The violent shoot-outs may be delivered with a wink but they are still extremely gory with bodies being blown to bits and walls covered in blood and offal. Also, the film has generated considerable controversy for its gratuitous use of the N word. Some might suggest that it’s used in the context of a brutally racist world but given the film’s often flippant tone, it can be uncomfortable to hear this expression used so often. Most disturbing, though, are the scenes depicting the brutal treatment of slaves including torture, floggings and savage dog attacks. Tarantino makes a potent and important statement about the appalling treatment of African American people but some may find this difficult to watch.
It’s not all brutality, though, as the film is often very funny such as when Django inexplicably dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy and when a band of Klansman debate the functionality of their hoods. The film also takes a bizarre comical turn into Ozploitation with the appearance of John Jarrat as a degenerate Aussie redneck and Tarantino himself attempting an Australian accent and sounding more like South African batsman Jacques Kallis.
Above all the violence, the quirky humour and the pop-culture references, two things make Tarantino’s films so memorable: the visual style and the characters. Django Unchained features a typically rich, atmospheric, retro look as well as some superb vistas of the American west. There’s also some memorable weird-ass characters including, Christoph Waltz (who dominates the film’s first half hour) as once again a quirky, funny German who’s also capable of extreme violence although this time he’s the good guy. Samuel L Jackson expunges all memories of horrible gambling adds in a funny yet disturbing portrayal of a sinister servant on Candy’s plantation. Jamie Foxx is kind of a hero caricature and takes a while to establish himself but eventually commands the screen. Best of all though is Leo as the magnificently nasty and maniacal Candy, who’s switch from dainty Southern gent to raving lunatic is genuinely disturbing.
At 165 minutes this bizarre revisionist western is long and does sag in places but it has enough classic Tarantino moments to satiate the drooling fan boys if not the unconverted.
Nick’s rating: Four stars.
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Release date: 24th Jan 2013
Running time: 165 mins.