From a failed heist gangster movie and female assassin revenge tale, through to an alternative take on the death of Hitler and Spaghetti Western tackling racism in the deep south – Quentin Tarantino has never failed to defy expectation.
Indeed, he’s spoken in the past about how he wants to maintain a consistently high standard for his directorial filmography: Something largely achieved thus far, perhaps excluding Death Proof, which whilst not that bad, clearly wasn’t vintage Tarantino. That said, from Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds through to this latest offering, you can see progression in his work; particularly his love of Spaghetti Western and its cinematic heroes and villains.
There’s plenty of scenes in Django Unchained that put me in mind of both Basterds and Kill Bill. The sort of tense, dialogue-heavy exchange between two characters that builds and builds to an epic – often explosive – climax. You see this in Django on more than one occasion; like a Writer-Director who’s flexing his muscles and grandstanding, but pulling it off with flair and panache.
Say what you like about Tarantino, but there’s hardly any Directors working today that’d go anywhere near this sort of material. That’s not to say much of it is historically that accurate, but with his trademark lashings of ultra-violence and wonderfully realised characters, it does make darn good cinema; putting it worlds away from bland Hollywood rehashes and remakes.
Django. The d is silent
In terms of plot, Django kicks off with Christopher Waltz’s bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, seeking out a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx) to help identify his next set of targets, the Brittle brothers.
Schultz abhors slavery and agrees to set him free once he helps complete the job. Turns out, Django is a natural at bounty hunting and Schultz urges him to partner up over the winter, to which he agrees.
During this time Schultz learns Django has a wife called Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he plans to find and free once winter is over. Once Schultz hears this tale he agrees to help free Broomhilda from sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). As you’d expect, their plan doesn’t go as hoped and culminates in typical Tarantino fashion.
I like the way you die, boy
Originally there were a few actors rumoured for the part of Django, but I’m glad it went to Foxx. He really stole the show, bringing an effortless cool swagger and ruthlessness to the character. His tough, uncompromising demeanour put me in mind of his performance in Collateral, particularly the scenes where he had to impersonate Tom Cruise’s hitman, which he did with great skill and poise.
Waltz, as the eloquent, unfailingly-polite bounty hunter, was on top form. Playing almost a continuation of his character from Basterds – but with more of a moral compass, even for a bounty hunter – he lit up the screen, every scene laying the groundwork for his encounter with DiCaprio’s violently sadistic Calvin Candie.
Which brings us to DiCaprio. Whilst aspects of characters he’s played in the past have been morally questionable, this is his first out-and-out pure bad guy. A Tarantino-scripted bad guy no less, which clearly gave him something to sink his teeth into, which he did with malevolent glee and aplomb: Revelling in scenes where he bounces off Waltz’s more moral Schultz.
Finally, honourable mention should go to the most dishonourable and despicable character, Samuel L Jackson’s ‘house n*gger’ Stephen. A black man who despises blacks more than most whites in the film do – viciously clinging to his position of power and authority in the Candie household.
Stephen is easily the most contemptible character Jackson has played in his career, something he does with astonishing conviction – subverting his natural charisma to make Stephen quite unpalatable to watch, but captivating nonetheless.
Hey, little troublemaker
It’s no big revelation that a Tarantino Western has been coming for a while. He’s peppered all his films with key scenes that nod to the genre: From the mexican stand-off in Reservoir Dogs and most of Kill Bill Vol 2, through to the powerful opening scene in Inglourious Basterds.
In terms of where this sits in his filmography, I’d say it’s on par with Kill Bill (I and II combined) but just edges Basterds – so one of his best, albeit suffering from a slightly long running time. If you’re even a passing fan of Westerns or Tarantino films, you won’t want to miss it.
Tarantino’s Top 20 Spaghetti Westerns
The Quentin Tarantino archives
Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill! – Roger Ebert’s journal