Quentin Tarantino | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
Quentin Tarantino made his name in the ’90s with a series of dialogue-heavy gangster thrillers that provoked a storm of imitators. Since the turn of the millennium, however, he’s contented himself with a series of extravagant hyper-cinephilic genre homage/parodies. After tackling Japanese action movies in Kill Bill Vol.1, revenge thrillers in Kill Bill Vol.2, B-movie grindhouse fillers in Grindhouse/Death Proof, and World War 2 men-on-a-mission movies in Inglourious Basterds, here he sets his sights on a genre whose DNA is threaded through all his movies: the Spaghetti Western.
It’s 1858, two years before the American Civil War (which started in 1861 — a schoolboy error, a reference, or a Basterds-style flourish? Who knows), and a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (an Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz) acquires a slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him track down three wanted brothers. In return, he will grant Django his freedom.
But that’s not the end of it. This being post-millennial Tarantino, whose every movie is so long it has the potential to be split in two, Kill Bill style, that plot is just Act One. As Schultz and Django bond, the German learns about Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to the infamous Candyland plantation. Being a good German and feeling he must help this real-life Siegfried, Schultz and Django concoct a plan to rescue her…
It’s fair to say Django Unchained sprawls. But, unlike the chapterised character-flitting antics of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, it has a straight throughline it follows from beginning to end, with only a few asides. In terms of length and scope, it’s perhaps not too much of a reach to evoke The Good, the Bad and the Ugly rather than any other self-indulgent lengthy non-epics. Some have tired of the film’s length (compared to the masses who have elevated it to 46th on IMDb’s all-time top 250, not many), but the prospect of an extended cut (mooted by QT as something he might offer later) excites me. Of course, the Kill Bill single-film edit still hasn’t made it further than Cannes or the New Beverly, so I won’t be holding my breath.
I’m going to offer pretty unrelenting praise for Django Unchained, but it’s hard to know where to begin. With the cinematography and its extraordinary range? From icy cold mountains to orangey warm Southern interiors, from homaging crash zooms and blood-splattered blossom to new perspectives on action, the work of DP Robert Richardson consistently shines. And I don’t believe there was any teal-and-orange or other such clichéd digital manipulation either. Beautiful.
Or how about those action sequences? Months of work training real horses to do things never before seen pays off (and Tarantino proudly displays the “no animals were harmed” notice right at the top of the credits), while the blood-drenched Candyland shoot-out is arguably one of the best pure action scenes in years. Those are amongst myriad other sequences, from the small and transitory to the epic and vital.
Or there’s always QT’s renowned music choices? He’s as irreverent but perfect as ever here, encompassing the cheesy title song from the 1966 original, some classic rock, a new song by Ennio Morricone and Elisa, and even modern hip-hop. Some of it jars at first (particularly the latter), but it all works to the intended effect. The only QT soundtracks I’ve bothered with actually buying previously were the Kill Bills, but this may join them.
Or the performances? Tarantino has really gifted his actors with some special roles here. Foxx arguably gets the short straw, though as heroes go there’s actually a lot for him to play in Django. He keeps it subtle amidst an array of large performances, and that’s no bad thing. As his mentor, Waltz earnt a second Oscar for a Tarantino role. Some have accused this of being the same performance as he gave in Basterds, but that’s not quite fair. They’re both Tarantino characters speaking Tarantino dialogue played by the same actor — they’re always going to feel similar. But there are subtle differences, which make Basterds’ Col. Landa a likeable villain and Django’s Schultz a likeable good guy.
Still, best served — and, perhaps, more deserving of the Supporting Actor nod — are villainous duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. For starters, has Leo ever played a villain before? He’s on stonking form here as Southern gent Monsieur Candie (who can’t speak French), a sinisterly welcoming fellow with a dark side that’s on constant display. He’s all smiles and all lingering threat and menace. Indeed, scenes are often at their most tense when he’s at his nicest. I think there’s an argument for him to go down as one of the great screen villains — he even has the obligatory cool dispatch. “I couldn’t resist” indeed.
And as for Jackson… He’s a QT regular, and so you’d expect him to be a mofo so cool he was rivalling the titular hero for biggest badass status. But no: he’s a rickety old house slave, with a ring of grey hair and always hunched over his walking stick. He commands respect, but is subservient to Candie… though, who’s really in control? There are some nice scenes and moments questioning that. And he’s completely menacing, but in a more subtle and insidious way than Jackson’s usual Jules-from-Pulp-Fiction-moulded villains.
Aside from the leads, there’s a host of recognisable faces in supporting roles — or even dialogue-free one-shot cameos: someone you might recognise from TV plays The Daughter of the Son of a Gunfighter, seen staring out of a window as Django and Schultz pass by. It does make you wonder if some of these people had bigger roles that got cut… or maybe there are just other reasons. However, one remaining cameo features perhaps the most satisfying use of “I know” since The Empire Strikes Back. And QT himself is in it, briefly, doing an Australian accent (I think?) and affording himself a striking exit.
One thing that provoked some comment and controversy was the violence, and the juxtaposition of humour and violence. Personally, I think Tarantino nails it. There’s horrific stuff done to slaves, most of it by Candie and his acolytes — but, what, you thought the slave trade was cushtie? There’s no lingering on gore like you’d find in a Saw film — there are bits where he could have, if he’d wanted, but that’s not the point. Are the scenes still shocking? Yes, but that is the point. These are Very Bad Men who do Very Bad Things, which I can well imagine are historically accurate, and Tarantino exposes that and, through it, well earns the explosion of vengeance that forms the film’s multiple climaxes.
There are flashes of humour throughout, making for welcome contrast, but the one that provoked the most discussion is an extended sequence with a gaggle of proto-Klan members. I’m sure you read about it: they can’t see out of their hoods. Some decried it for being silliness involving a gang who were viciously cruel and shouldn’t be the subject of humour. Tosh and piffle, I say. One of the best ways to skewer many an evil institution is to make them a laughing-stock, to take the piss out of them, and that’s exactly what Tarantino is doing. These aren’t likeable, funny people who are Klan members; they’re incompetent fools because they’re Klan members. The resulting scene is hilarious and deservedly one of the movie’s most memorable moments.
There’s a lot to say about Django Unchained, and a lot to praise about it — it is two-and-three-quarter hours long after all. But points of discussion are often the mark of a good film, and praise obviously is. As a marriage of homage and B-movie to historical comment and some satisfying justice, albeit only cinematic, Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western homage is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking, rewarding, and thoroughly cinematic experience.
Django Unchained is available in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray, and via various on-demand services, from today.
It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.