Much as Wes Anderson’s films increasingly resemble elaborate and extended versions of Max Fischer’s plays from Rushmore, so Quentin Tarantino’s post-millennial output bring to mind the kind of trashy screenplays Pulp Fiction‘s Mia Wallace might’ve auditioned for. Hell, Kill Bill was essentially the Fox Force Five show mentioned in the Jack Rabbit Slims sequence. Anyone waiting for Tarantino to play in the sandbox of the real world which his 90’s movies at least nodded toward may as well give up now. QT is happy with his own sandbox, thank you very much; pleased to smash his toys together for his own amusement, happy in the knowledge that we might have some fun watching him do it.
The knock-on effect of behaving so indulgently is that, well, you can overdo it, and much of his recent work has been knocked for just this reason. Tarantino has always had the gift of the gab, but he’s fallen into a bad habit of pushing running times to bursting point – Kill Bill even broke the camel’s back, being released as a two-parter. Hearing then that Django Unchained is his longest (single) film gave me some significant pause as his last epic, 2009’s Inglorious Basterds was a considerably over-stuffed affair. Whilst I enjoyed it on first viewing, I find that film almost impossible to finish now, so long-winded is the majority of it’s running time. I foresaw further torpor. Endless scenes of actors ricocheting unnatural dialogue, getting themselves nowhere.
But equally the idea of a full-blown Tarantino Western was irresistible. The man’s always cribbed from cinema’s history, and Sergio Leone has been one of his most obvious influences. And as Django began, it’s blood-red credits promising Ennio Morricone music over shots of bone-dry deserts, it felt as though the director was finally home. Transplanting the Spaghetti Western’s sensibilities to the Southern states, blending it with his own taste for the gaudy and adding a liberal dash of blaxploitation flavour, Django Unchained is about as indulgent a production as QT has mounted thus far. It’s also quite easily one of his best.
plot story this time is of titular slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx). It’s two years before the Civil War and the slavery business is a-boomin’. We meet Django with his chains on, but it’s not long before he finds his freedom (of sorts), courtesy of verbose German bounty hunter Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). Shultz needs Django to help him identify a bounty, and whilst he finds slavery distasteful, he’s not above compromising his morals to earn a dollar. Thus he buys Django to assist his cause.
During their adventures, and with the charm of a good storyteller captivated by another’s tale, Shultz comes to sympathise with Django’s plight and vows to assist him in finding the wife he was brutally separated from (Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington). They discover she is in the custody of Mississippi slavery don Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and so, now as partners, they hatch a plan to free Broomhilda from her plantation prison. This is the stuff of fairy tales – and Mario games – albeit painted on a canvas dripping with sweat and blood. Lots of blood.
And it’s a riot. Mostly. Indeed the first hour clips along at the kind of gleeful rate you wish Tarantino would deploy more often. The director piles on the quirky situations, stirring in enough oddball characters to make the Coen’s blush. And all the while the (for want of a better term) bromance between Shultz and Django strengthens – this comes naturally and effortlessly. For my money Waltz is better here than he was in Basterds, and it is on his shoulders that much of this early material falls, as Django is left lost for words by his eccentric new companion’s actions – justifiably so.
Foxx has come under criticism in some circles for not quite filling the shoes of a leading man in Django, but I personally had little to fault with his performance. Django is quiet, suspicious, thoughtful and measured at times, but also exacting, hot-tempered, methodical and – when pushed – ruthless. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Django can serve it up just as well as Kill Bill‘s Bride. Perhaps it is because those around him are playing so big. This includes the excellent DiCaprio (relishing the role of the villain here) and the obligatory Samuel L Jackson (whose pantomime turn as Stephen threatens to tip the whole thing into farce).
Fortunately the balance stays, though it’s a queasy journey throughout. Django probably plays for laughs more frequently than any other Tarantino movie, yet this is offset by some of the director’s most brutal bloodletting and cruelest punishments. The subject of slavery is a tough one and is approached unflinchingly. Whether you are happy to have this bump up against Tarantino’s dark sense of humour is another thing. I had no qualms with it myself. Just be prepared for violence as wince-worthy and gory as it is slapstick.
Once the key actors all converge things do settle down, and whilst the second hour is wordier, it’s no trawl. A protracted dinner sequence is saved by the knife-edge tension underpinning it, whilst an explosion of gunfire later on kicks the film back into gear as we blaze into a third act in which anything could happen. Django‘s story might seem slight for nearly three hours, and yes, much of what happens here isn’t necessary, but it’s all good.
During the aforementioned dinner scene I had a moment of self-awareness. I asked myself how I thought the film was going to end. I replied, happily, that I didn’t know. And whilst the final notes are ultimately writ large on the screen before they’re played out, they were a bruised joy to behold, and I left the film beaming ear-to-ear. That hasn’t happened for quite a few cinema visits.
Who knows, maybe QT has listened to his detractors after all. The inevitable cameo from the man himself had me groaning. Here we go again. Minutes later I was nearly applauding in my seat. I can’t quite tell you why, but it’s a masterstroke. Tarantino has always been about reputation, and the man knows his own enough to play on it. And whilst it can be grizzly, Django is nothing if it isn’t playful.
Who cares if it’s not really about anything? Sometimes a tall tale’s enough. I had my doubts. I was weary of Tarantino. But this epic has brought me firmly back into the fold. I look forward to our next genre-hopping journey through revenge, exploitation and twinkle-eyed devilry.