Self indulgence is something well known to Quentin Tarantino and is evidently displayed heartily and unashamedly coursing throughout his directorial back catalogue. It’s hardly a surprise though that the Weinsteins give him free reign since he almost single-handedly saved Miramax from going under in the 90s with Reservoir Dogs and, most notably, Pulp Fiction. The problem now is that he doesn’t have anyone to actually produce his films properly, say no to him or edit the fluff in the cutting room, in fact Tarantino has only one film in his canon that follows a recognisable narrative structure and holds the interest for its full run time, Jackie Brown.
It seems that Tarantino’s onanism reached something of a nadir following the eye-gougingly boring Deathproof and the sloppy Inglorious Basterds as with Django Unchained he returns to the Jackie Brown template of telling an actual story in a comprehensive manner. Maybe he listened to the negative press regarding his recent output and noticed that general interest in his work was cooling with only his fan base showing the levels of appreciation that have plummeted since his mid 90s heyday or maybe he just wanted to show that he can still be considered a cutting edge director with his finger on the filmmaking pulse.
Django Unchained follows QT’s latest muse Christoph Waltz as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz and an ice cool Jamie Foxx as the titular hero around the American south in search of the latter’s German born girlfriend Broomhilda. Along the way they meet a variety of Tarantino-esque villains and curiosities, as usual all filled by aging and past it stars ripe for the QT resurrection, Bruce Dern makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo and Don Johnson shines as a caricature of Colonel Sanders. The ace-in-the-hole though is when our mismatched heroes reach the Candyland cotton plantation where Broomhilda is being kept and we’re introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and his house slave Stephen as played by Samuel L Jackson.
It’s here that the story jumps into fifth gear, helped no end by the performances of the principal cast with DiCaprio and Jackson in arguably their best character roles. Leo, complete with tobacco stained teeth and dark bags under his eyes, plays Candie with an unsettling megalomaniacal tension that bubbles just under his pristinely dressed surface and viciously erupts when lessons need teaching, which we see when he has one of his Mandingo slaves torn apart by dogs, and when he discovers the duplicitous nature behind Waltz and Foxx’s reason for visiting his property which leads him to threaten the life of Broomhilda in the film’s best scene.
Jackson gives Stephen a limp and a cat like sneer to prove that this isn’t as grey as a black men versus white men battle of good against evil as it turns out that Stephen could just be the baddest of the bad with constant back-stabbing of and snitching on our protagonists even wishing a slow and painful death against Django after he could walk away a free man. Waltz is a joy as ever but does basically play a benevolent version of exactly the same character he was in Inglorious Basterds and Foxx plays it the straightest out of all the leads.
There’s been a lot said about the amount of negative cultural language used in the film and its depiction of racial inequality but this is a film about a time and a place in America where this behaviour wasn’t just rife it was the norm. It’s painful to see how humans without white skin were treated then and some of the punishments bestowed on them like the hot box are particularly disgusting but these things happened, it’s understandable that some people don’t want to be reminded of it but we do need to look back to move forward and when we’re faced with the reality of mistakes from our past then we’re more likely not to repeat them.
Because of the grotesquely vibrant characters and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in I can understand why the racial issues can be misunderstood, since at times, it verges on the cartoony, but that would be missing the point of the film, it’s just a story that takes place when this other stuff took place, nothing is glorified or gratuitously overplayed and there are good and bad people from all races. In fact the two main sympathetic characters, one black and one white (Waltz and Foxx), need and rely upon each other to fulfil their individual tasks.
The film is about half an hour too long displaying lingering remnants of Tarantino’s vanity but fortunately it’s not overly detrimental to the final product and the more familiar structure helps the pacing not to sag or dwell just when it seems it might. The stellar acting, cracking screenplay, beautiful costumes and typically booming soundtrack make Django Unchained an entertaining, gloriously violent trudge through a beautiful part of America in a time when the people were anything but.
– Greg Foster