Quentin Tarantino doing a western! As a western nut and a Tarantino fan what could be better. Though Django Unchained is not the Wild West so much as the Deep South, but it’s a hell of wild ride there none the less.
The film is firmly in Tarantino over the top territory with his trademark violence, tense dialogue and sheer fun.
It is also a sprawling unfocused film lacking the tight perfection of Tarantino’s best work Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Although arguably Django Unchained’s lack of focus is half the fun.
Yet while fun, its focus on the horrors of slavery in the American south might make this the director’s film with the most to say, his most political almost.
The first third of the film is a sheer joy for a western fan with Tarantino again showing his sheer love of film. The opening red rustic title sequence imposed over scenes from the Alabama Hills (in California) where hundreds of westerns were filmed in the 40s and 50s is a wonderful Western homage.
This had me grinning for a good 45 minutes as it continued with a spaghetti western style entrance into a mud strewn town to the great western composer Ennio Morricone’s music from the Clint Eastwood movie Two Mules for Sister Sara.
The opening also saw a similar scene to the opening of Inglorious Basterds with Christopher Waltz again dominating a tense scene with just dialogue alone. Like in Basterds this is a bravely long, funny, uncomfortable and brilliant scene.
The film’s plot is pretty straight forward. It involves Waltz’s sophisticated German bounty hunter Dr Shultz (who travels as a dentist in a cart with a hilarious giant tooth on top) freeing Jamie Foxx’s slave Django in order to help him track down some wanted men that Django can help identify.
This is swiftly achieved with the film’s first visit to a plantation and a hilarious piss take of a proto klu klux klan raid led by Don Johnson’s Big Daddy.
Some camp fire therapy about Django’s German speaking wife Broomhilda who has been sold and Shultz’s explanation of the German folk tale that is the origin of her name (that will come into play later on), leads the pair to team up over the winter and kill white men before seeking to buy Broomhilda out of slavery.
A montage scene (even Rocky had a montage) swiftly gets us through the winter with some more Western homage in the form of the country and western music and snowy Wyoming mountain scenery.
From here the film goes in a completely different direction and the next act is set largely on the Mississippi Candy Land plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie.
This large section of film is brutal. And not fun at all. It is extremely well done though and its exposition of the sheer brutality of the plantation system and the treatment of slaves is somewhat similar to Schindler’s List close up look at a concentration camp.
Leo is pure racist evil, and convincingly so. The word nigger is used constantly and torture and death scenes are graphic and disturbing. Has a film treated the horrors of American slavery with such graphic honesty?
Amongst all this is a convoluted plan by Shultz and Django to buy Broomhilda from Leo’s Candy.
A dinner table conversation is another virtuoso piece of scriptwriting by Tarantino which while not containing the memorable lines or phrases from his earlier films is excruciatingly menacing and a masterwork.
But after around two hours of relatively few action scenes, and you think Tarantino is actually really making a conscience film, the director talks directly to his audience through Shultz who says “I just couldn’t resist,” before all hell breaks loose.
The final act is a rather flawed series of climaxes following a completely over the top shoot out with blood and bodies splattering with almost comical exaggeration – as well as an exploding Tarantino himself.
Although such has been the brutality and racism on-screen for all this time, you can’t help but want Django to kill everyone and revel in his “black revenge fantasy” as the film has been dubbed.
It is also almost a relief that the complete over the top nature of the climatic violence makes this section of film feel light-hearted and in the realms of comedy with Foxx hamming it up wonderfully.
So quite a ride then!
But it is also hugely entertaining, with wonderful acts from Waltz and Foxx, gripping scenes of long tense dialogue, great cinematography and an incredible and apt soundtrack mixing Johnny Cash, Richie Havens, James Brown, schmaltzy country and western crooners and hip hop!
Its uncomfortable honesty about slavery is profound and deeply shocking, yet an important statement too. While it’s humour and almost self mocking exaggeration are highly enjoyable.
Typically for Tarantino then a unique movie. Yet its mix of styles is at once its genius as well as its flaw.