Quentin Tarantino has been called a lot of things over the course of his 20-year career as a filmmaker but ‘socially conscious’ has probably never ranked high on the list.
That changes somewhat with Django Unchained, his violent, passionate, exuberant and angry tale of a freed slave looking to liberate his wife and take revenge on his tormentors in the American South of the 19th century.
Tarantino being Tarantino, his tangible outrage at the degradation and inhumanity of slavery is depicted in a fairly no-holds-barred manner.
A virtuoso of screen violence, he uses blood and brutality to get the audience’s pulse racing in one scene, seize it almost to a stop the next.
But while Django Unchained is a fiery, fierce and very confronting rebel yell of a movie (if you’re sensitive about racial slurs, bring earplugs), it’s also a sparkling piece of entertainment – to borrow a line from his Kill Bill movies, it’s a “roaring rampage of revenge” that’s also surprisingly moving and hilariously funny.
It begins in Texas circa 1858, with Django (Jamie Foxx), his body scarred and his spirit seemingly near broken, freed from a pair of slave traders by the cultured, articulate German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Inglourious Basterds star Christoph Waltz).
While he despises slavery, Schultz didn’t spring Django out of sheer goodness. He’s searching for three wanted men with a hefty price on their heads but he’s never seen their faces.
Django has, though. They’re the men who brutalised both him and his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) before separating them.
So Django and Schultz form an unlikely partnership, one that goes from business arrangement to a mentor-protege relationship as Schultz teaches Django the finer points of bounty hunting (Django proves a quick study when it comes to quick-draw gunfighting) to genuine friendship.
Their quest to find and free Broomhilda eventually leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose particular penchant for ‘mandingo’ bouts where slaves fight to the death mark him as a particularly loathsome individual.
As nasty a piece of work as Candie is, he’s not the greatest threat at the ‘Candy Land’ estate – that would be Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the shrewd slave who quickly twigs that there’s more to Django and Schultz than the two men are letting on.
Candie and Stephen are among the most vivid villains Tarantino has conjured up, and DiCaprio and Jackson are both marvellous. DiCaprio makes the most of Tarantino’s clever scripting of Candie – the man initially comes across as a pretentious buffoon, more callow and reckless than actually threatening, but when his vile, venal nature is revealed it adds a new dimension of danger to the story.
And Jackson, better than he’s been in years, makes Stephen’s grumpy bombast and underlying caginess and cunning a formidable mix. They’re a compellingly evil and vicious pair (and share a really interesting dynamic); they’re worthy adversaries for our heroes.
And what heroes! Foxx is different from the usually Tarantino protagonist – he’s subtly steely, his pain, fury, sorrow and compassion delivered more through expression than speech.
But when that emotion is set loose, as in a thoroughly electrifying scene where Django whips the absolute shit out of one of the men who harmed and humiliated both himself and Broomhilda, it’s a force of nature, as terrifying and awe-inspiring as wildfire or a tornado. It’s amazing work.
And Waltz is a wonder as Schultz, equal parts warm-hearted romantic and cold-blooded mercenary. Gleefully wrapping his mouth around his verbose speeches (it’s a great running joke that the German has a more extensive vocabulary than any American he encounters), there’s charm to burn in his performance.
Then there’s an eclectic but carefully-chosen supporting cast of recognisable names and faces, some who only get one scene. For mine, standouts include Don Johnson (he’s like the Ghost of McConaughey Future), Justified‘s Walton Goggins and the unjustly-forgotten likes of Don Stroud and Lee Horsley.
Oh, and this guy, of course:
Naturally, though, the true hero of Django Unchained is the man behind the camera. Tarantino is only improving as a filmmaker as time goes by, and while every movie with his name on it has something to offer Django Unchained just might be his biggest, boldest and, yes, even best to date.