Film review: Django Unchained is a crazy yet hugely entertaining return to form

Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) in Django Unchained. Picture: AP
Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) in Django Unchained. Picture: AP
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QUENTIN Tarantino continues to justify his superstar status on the world’s cinema stage with Django Unchained, his brilliant, bloody and thrillingly unpredictable revenge western about a freed slave unleashing hell on his plantation-owning enemies in the pre-Civil War American South of 1858.

Django Unchained (18)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie FoxX, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington

* * * * *

Sort of an artistic companion piece to his audacious, history rewriting Second World War epic Inglourious Basterds, the film once again sees him taking a serious subject matter and filtering it through the prism of his beloved exploitation movie heritage in order to create a deranged alternate universe, one in which the barbarity of a heinous system of oppression is exposed and cathartically avenged in ruthless and savage fashion.

Tarantino’s more knee-jerk detractors may well bristle at such an inflammatory subject being broached without sober academic analysis to keep us several steps removed from the horror, but while Tarantino’s visceral, talky, trash-embracing approach certainly plunges us straight in to its ugliness, he’s also operating on a more subversively intellectual level. Django Unchained, after all, is the first large-scale Hollywood movie to really address the subject head-on from the slave’s perspective and, as much as Tarantino clearly enjoys provoking audiences and riling overly sensitive commentators by using the tropes of blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns (Django takes its name from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian gunslinger movie starring Franco Nero, who inevitably makes an appearance here), he also knows that these types of fringe movies have historical importance. Traditionally exploitation films bluntly confronted racial, political and sexual inequities long before the mainstream had worked up the courage to even acknowledge their existence. Revolutions begin on the fringes, in other words, and with Hollywood notoriously nervous about big-screen depictions of slavery – one legacy, perhaps, of the deplorable racism on display in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – Tarantino, emboldened by his artistically maligned forebears, addresses this imbalance in the most unapologetically forthright way imaginable.

This begins almost from the off with close-up shots of the whip-marked backs of a chain gang of slaves being marched across Texas. Among them is Django (Jamie Foxx), whose fate soon changes with the arrival of Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned ruthless bounty hunter who secures Django’s freedom to help him track down a trio of plantation foremen whose identities he needs Django – who has suffered at their hands – to confirm.

This is only a fraction of the plot, but it sets Django on the first leg of his hero’s journey, becoming first Shultz’s student, then his partner, before eventually coming into his own to do what needs as to be done to rescue the wife (played by Kerry Washington) from whom he’s been forcibly and maliciously separated. Shultz, a loquacious, progressive, cultivated fellow who abhors slavery is pretty much the closest thing the film has to a character with a modern perspective and he frequently threatens to steal the movie. Yet it’s a measure of how perfectly calibrated the film is that over the course of its nearly three-hour running time, his early dominance is balanced out as Foxx’s Django grows in confidence and stature, particularly in the film’s second half, when the pair confront the film’s true villains: the absurd and reprehensible Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (played with malevolent glee – and rotting teeth – by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ageing house servant Stephen, played magnificently and chillingly by Samuel L Jackson. The latter really is a piece of work. With his stooped physique and sadistic, room-silencing way of eyeballing the other slaves in the ironically named Candie Land plantation (there’s nothing sweet about it), it’s as if decades of indentured but devoted servitude to the Candie family have turned Stephen into a despicable aberration – a physical manifestation of the unintentionally damaging legacy of the meek, submissive title character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published six years before this film is set).

He’s certainly a brilliant counterpoint to Foxx’s more stoic, self-actualizing Django, and the yin-yang of this pair is matched by the jokey symmetry of pitting the sweet-toothed Candie against a man – Shultz – with a background in dentistry. This is mirrored in other theme-enhancing ways by the many linguistic gags and sly observations with which Tarantino peppers the film. Indeed, as much as he deploys hard-hitting, narrative-enhancing violence and an abundance of contextualised racial epithets to set the extreme parameters of this messed-up world, he also makes a mockery of the justifications for slavery in more subtly amusing ways by creating a running joke about the linguistic ineptitude and cultural ignorance of those determined to keep Django down. It’s a big, crazy, hugely entertaining, multilayered piece of filmmaking – a fierce but fiercely intelligent testament to Tarantino’s frequently questioned filmmaking proclivities and certainly among the best films he’s made.