Quentin Tarantino, a name synonymous with extremely well written, impeccably considered and very provocative filmmaking, returns with yet another revenge tale. This time, Django Unchained tackles slavery and sets it against a ‘western’-genre backdrop. This is a wonderful film – it is, but once in a while someone needed to tap Q on the shoulder and tell him to ease up off the gas. A master and a genius, no doubt, but sometimes the Emperor has no clothes too.
The titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who comes into the company of one Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter in need of an escort of sorts. In the course of their partnership, they set out to free Django’s wife, a slave under the ownership of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Lo, and the scene was set for an adventure movie the calibre of which is rarely achieved. It is unapologetically aggressive and violent – but don’t think for a moment that it is violence without purpose; even Tarantino knows when to fall back on “less-is-more” camera work and editing.
The key performance isn’t Jamie Foxx’s Django, oddly, but Christoph Waltz’s Schultz, who has this knack of playing complex characters with sure footing. His delivery is perfect, every line lands straight and true with just enough humour balanced against just-barely-contained aggression. He’s a trained killer, after all—even if, amusingly, he’s posing as a travelling dentist.
That’s not to say that Jamie Foxx isn’t brilliant in a challenging role – he’s fantastic too. He shows restraint and subtlety, giving Django minor twitches and quiet confidence that speak volumes without uttering a word.
Smaller roles fare equally well. Tarantino has a knack of fleshing out even the most minor characters; they might only have a handful of lines, but they’re delivered in just such a way that you get a true sense of who they are. That is the true talent behind the camera and on the page here.
Leonardo DiCaprio is, to some, a marvellous actor. I think he plays a few characters very well, and plays himself the rest of the time. His portrayal of the explosive Candie (of Candieland Ranch) is one of his most memorable to date. Again, I credit Tarantino with bringing out his best work since Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a greying house slave on Candie’s stead, nails the sycophantic laughter and snake-in-the-grass menace. Again, these smaller roles are so meaty that they’re magnified beyond their initial scope.
So often, in films like Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, you can practically see the cogs whirring in Tarantino’s rapid-fire brain. Every scene is so perfectly considered for length, framing, best possible impact on the audience—all of the most important elements a director of worth need to master in order to get the story across. Django Unchained, nearly as neatly assembled (and perhaps better paced) than Basterds before it, has all the hallmarks of another masterpiece. It does fall just short – in areas that Basterds sidestepped very carefully.
For one, Tarantino’s indulgence is generally restrained – but breaks free of its shackles and runs amok. The Emperor’s nuts are hanging out here. There’s one scene that sticks out like a sore thumb – and you’ll know it immediately. It’s Tarantino at his most indulgent, doing what he wants because it’s his movie and fuck you, everybody else. That’s fine – and mostly he nails it in his other movies. In Django, situated in what is the climactic sequence of the film, it’s a painful distraction and poorly considered.
But that’s about it.
Django’s achievements are manifold. It takes on slavery with (and this might seem conflicting, but whatever) even-handed brutality. The performances are utterly compelling throughout, built out of characters that, under just about any other direction, would likely fall far from the mark. There’s creativity to the language, set against a surprising soundtrack; the combination kept me enthralled.
Do you suppose Tarantino woke up one day and thought to himself, “I think I’m going to make one of the best westerns of all-time”? I like to think he did. This film has sack. It has “sand”, to quote the man. Django Unchained is hallmarked with the elements that have become Tarantino’s marks of trade; it has nuance in ways that only the few extremely gifted film masters ever achieve. But it also has ego. Then again, when you’re that far up the chain, you can afford to swing your dick around once in a while.