The last few years have seen Tarantino’s star wane – his name, once a byword for a kind of hyperactive cinema offering snappy dialogue and copious un-PC violence had curdled audience enthusiasm to boredom as he seemed incapable of evolution. While his naughties’ output occasionally hinted at an old genius, most particularly with Inglourious Basterds, it has taken a film like Django Unchained to collate his messy strands of filmmaking back into an entertaining movie. Think Blazing Saddles meets Mickey and Mallory!
Django Unchained hits all the right notes for a Tarantino fan – from the soundtrack and dialogue to the schlock violence and derision, he conjures a reimagining of history so brutal and entertaining that the long running time practically flies by. There are faults, to be sure – indeed, even fans of Tarantino will sigh as his megalomania takes over from time to time, shoe-horning his ego, and himself, into unrelated scenes. And these faults do trip up an otherwise seamless flow, leaving plenty of room for after-film arguments across pints or coffee…which is exactly what a non-film-schooled director would want from his audience. Of course, then there is the racism – Tarantino has been building towards a film like this his entire cinematic career, from using Samuel L. Jackson as a sort of muse to his own embarrassing efforts at ‘gangsta’ talk. You can’t help but feel that he’s getting extreme pleasure from the artistic licence afforded him by setting his movie pre-Civil War, and making his hero a freed slave. As a revisionist Western it has holes on a par with Wild Wild West (please – no more cowboy ray-bans!), but fans of Tarantino will know that his coolness permeates even to the past. And copious use of the ‘n’ word aside, this reimagining of racial warfare in the Deep South manages what Basterds did not in creating a wholly blasphemous take on history that actually rings (somewhat) true. More than that, since we now have Christoph Waltz on our side, we can finally cheer the good guys with undivided gusto.
The casting is, of course, the real revelation. Waltz takes Tarantino’s sometimes mangled use of language and ups the ante on its coolness – nobody else could deliver his words with such panache and class. His interpretation of a bounty hunter caught between common humanity and simple moneymaking is by turns hilarious and excessive, but always mesmerising. The usually unlikeable Jamie Foxx takes the melodramatic title role of Django, and succeeds in giving life to Tarantino’s immense creation. Foxx excels by not taking himself too seriously, and the ridiculous scenarios and fantastical lines flow much more smoothly for having no thespian illusions blocking their way. Along with Waltz, the big talking point has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of plantation owner and all-round bastard, Calvin J. Candie – and oh does he fill that role with relish! His over-the-top accent and ridiculous cruelty anchor the movie in its time – pre-Civil War Southern USA, where white men ruled with an iron fist. Ably helped by his ruthless slave confidant Stephen (Jackson), their interplay is so powerfully malicious and hyperbolic that only Django’s dramatic drive for both his freedom and his wife can balance their scene-stealing machinations.
The running time does hint at Tarantino’s inability to find fault with any of his creations – he can rarely bear to leave anything on the cutting room floor, and there are certainly scenes that could have benefited from the chop. Despite its flaws, though, Django has so many parts that offer pure entertainment that – as long as you don’t take it too seriously – it’s nearly impossible not to be invested in some way. The bottom line is that while it is politically-incorrect, facetious, ridiculous and crazy, it is also Tarantino at his best – kinetic, irreverent and downright entertaining!