Love him or hate him, a new film by writer-director Quentin Tarantino is always an event. Whether he ticks all the right boxes of violence, deliberate characters and too-cool-for-school dialogue or annoys you with his homages and in-jokes, he always makes a film ripe for debate.
As a massive fan of Tarantino (his style really opened my eyes to what cinema could be when I saw Pulp Fiction way back) and all the things that makes his films truly his own, I can’t deny I loved Django Unchained. This sprawling yet meticulous tale of blood-soaked revenge is supremely entertaining in a way only Tarantino can achieve. And while it may not be his best film it adds to an instantly rewatchable body of work and continues his inimitable style.
The plot follows the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) – the D is silent – a slave who after being freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) is tasked by his rescuer to help him carry out a bounty in exchange for being taken to rescue his wife, who is being held by the vicious slave-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
With a runtime that’s well on its way to being three hours long, there’s no denying Django Unchained is indulgent. Did it need to be that long? Absolutely not. But are there any specific glaring moments or scenes that could have been shortened or cut? If there are they are very few and far between. It earns its stay by never being boring, propelled by a sense of purpose inherit in the plot, another set of fascinating characters and, of course, Tarantino’s trademark dialogue that can make a simple meal at a table palpable with tension and grotesque humour.
Originally meant for Will Smith, Foxx takes the title role by the horns and gives it his all, inhabiting this black hero with conviction. Waltz, who came out of nowhere and blew us away in Tarantino’s previous film Inglourious Basterds, is once again a highlight as the smart-talking, determined Dr. Schultz. He ultimately walks away with the film (and has already won a Golden Globe for the performance) but let’s not forget the plethora of excellent supporting performances from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio, the latter of which is playing spectacularly against-type as the vile and compellingly unpredictable Calvin Candie. Once more it’s the marriage of great dialogue and gripping performances playing diverse characters that make Tarantino’s film so entertaining.
It wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without the eclectic soundtrack, which on paper is at odds with the events unfolding on-screen but as ever works like magic in context. A mix of existing songs and some original stuff (something not often seen in his movies) proves he is one of the masters of the film soundtrack.
Accusations of treating the subject matter too flippantly I think are unfounded. It’s true that the film’s slavery-themed plot is automatically going to beget controversy but Tarantino is merely shining a light on a period of history not much tackled on film and, in the same way as he did with WWII in Inglourious Basterds, putting his spin on events in a way that can both stir up discussion and entertain in equal measure.
It doesn’t pull any punches as far as showing the brutality of violence, with as much attention paid to the cathartic revenge sort as there is to the cruel violence that undoubtedly took place at the hands of slave owners in the 19th century. Gone are the days of only implying the violence (such as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs) as bloody shootouts are shown in all their gory glory. Even by Tarantino’s standards this is violent but it’s all pulled off so elegant that it has a cinematic quality rather than feeling excessive or exploitative. It’s not exactly subtle but that’s not really what you should go into a Tarantino film wanting and expecting.
Fans of Tarantino’s work will not be disappointed by his latest offering as it offers the same sort of zeal, outlandishness and memorable dialogue that’s become associated with the man. Is it his finest film yet? Quite probably not but it’s another film of crackling dialogue, compelling characters and terrific music from a filmmaker with a unique and enduring cinematic voice.
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Django Unchained is released in UK cinemas on January 18th.