Tarantino’s eagerly anticipated pastiche of the western epic has caused more controversy and generated more press than most Oscar-winning masterpieces manage over an entire awards season. That statement was even true two weeks ago, before it won Golden Globe accolades for best screenplay and best supporting actor (Waltz). And it shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a bold, throbbing, exuberantly crafted piece of work – one that rattles cages with a vengeance. If the N-word and the cascading blood don’t make you blanch, the crackling dialogue, precise cinematography and dazzling stunt work probably will – to say nothing of the story, of course.
It’s true that Tarantino is nowadays such a cult legend and fan-boy magnet that even if you personally aren’t feeling the vibe you will, possibly to your irritation, be surrounded by movie-goers revelling in the melodramatic machismo and laughing a bit too loudly at Waltz’s razor-sharp lines. If there’s some Tarantino agnosticism left in you, you won’t thank your fellow (male) viewer for punching the air when Jamie Foxx, with aggressive self-confidence, shows off his quick-draw revolver prowess. For me, at any rate, self-admiring, semi-cathartic moments like these tend to let the air out of the balloon. They’re just too easy, somehow.
But Django Unchained does something else, and does it so well, that I’m willing to accept the showy bravado that is so often reducible to guns, blood anda lust for revenge. What the film manages, to my pleasant surprise, is to conduct a joyride through old Dixie while simultaneously building up to a passionate climax steeped in heartbreaking romance and pacifistic, moral indignation.
That odyssey starts out two years before the American Civil War when the German immigrant and bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Waltz) ‘lights out for the territory’ with Django (Foxx), a slave whom he offers to free in return for Django’s help in identifying the ruthless Brittle Brothers, wanted dead or alive. The successful and well-balanced alliance soon turns into a rare friendship making Schultz, who morally objects to slavery, promise to help Django find and free his wife Broomhilda (Washington).
Broomhilda’s current owner is the sadistic and oily Calvin Candy (DiCaprio in a sinister and expansive performance) whose nauseating, decaying teeth represent the state of his morality. Careful plans to rescue Broomhilda are hatched and patiently executed by the gun-slinging duo foreshadowing an epic and heroic culmination. However, Calvin’s trusted, racist-to-the-bone house slave, the mid-70s Uncle Tom figure Stephen (Jackson), hasn’t been groomed or manipulated out of intuiting what makes a man like Django tick. The shocking, suspenseful scenes that follow – and often explode in either violence or precious moments of tenderness – make it impossible for even the sceptic to resist the power of the story.
Concerning the largely American controversy surrounding Tarantino’s favourite racial epithet and penchant for graphic violence in the shape of gleefully doled-out revenge, well, it was pretty much to be expected. What’s much more surprising is the film’s remarkable ability to weave together a number of dazzling sub-genre elements as it goes along: spaghetti western obviously sets the scene, yet turns into epic adventure with the rescue mission. Then a great buddy flick/road-movie gets underway that morphs into no-nonsense action and exploitation – while elements of romance with some comedy thrown in let you breathe. The Tarantino trademarks are aplenty, but the film doesn’t buckle under their weight, and the writer-director, who appears in a cameo, has matured. Besides, the simple fact that the leading chronicler of modern-day American popular culture has managed to tackle the slave issue with such confidence and candidness while telling one hell of a story would have been enough to sell the film.
Dir: Quentin Tarantino; US action/drama/western, 2012, 165 mins; Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L Jackson
Premiered January 24