Master of the homage, award-winning writer and director Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill) has courted controversy yet again with his violent and bloody period piece, Django Unchained.
Inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s violent Italian western Django, Tarantino has taken the classic American western and has applied some blaxploitation themes to tell the story of Django, a slave who wins his freedom in order to save his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a sadistic white plantation owner.
Set two years before the American civil war, Django Unchained is a tale of retribution and rescue and an uncompromising portrayal of 19th-Century slavery in the American Deep South that also looks further than the obvious subtext of the film.
When German dentist-cum-bounty-hunter, Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) interrupts the transport of a group of slaves we’re first introduced to the shackled Django (Jamie Foxx). Shultz needs Django’s help to find a vicious family of outlaws and offers the spirited slave his freedom in return.
Oscar winners Shultz (Carnage, Inglourious Basterds) and Foxx (Ray, Collateral) are well cast as the engaging double act. Foxx’s versatile performance begins with a quiet dignity in the face of the injustice and discrimination, which turns to gritty resolve and finally an entertaining flamboyancy, but Shultz’s eloquent dialogue, comic timing and charismatic delivery stole virtually every scene and puts him in serious contention for a second Oscar.
The newly deputised Django is first weary of the unconventional bounty hunter, but soon comes to trust his new partner. When Django comes face to face with old foes on Big Daddy’s (Don Johnson) plantation he discovers he’s a talented gun-for-hire. Johnson’s (Nash Bridges, Miami Vice) scenes are full of Tarantino’s trademark dark humour that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mel Brooks’ anarchic comedy Blazing Saddles.
Django Unchained is littered with film references, telling the uncomfortably true history of America with a liberal splash of cinematic history, from Sergio Leone to Roots. Even Big Daddy’s Klan attack on the duo’s wagon had more than a passing resemblance to a classic Apache raid.
For the first time in a Tarantino film the soundtrack includes some original songs and the decision to use rap as a backdrop to Django’s gun-slinging was inspired.
Shultz becomes enamoured by his new friend’s quest to rescue Broomhilda, who shares her name with a mythical German heroine, and feels obliged to help her escape from the clutches of wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
In a ruse to gain Candie’s confidence, the two hustlers want ‘in’ on the abhorrent slave owner’s Mandingo trade, a horrific ‘sport’ were male slaves are forced to fight each other to the death.
When the scam is exposed, DiCaprio’s (Inception, Titanic) portrayal of the menacing flesh trader is terrifying and will be remembered as one of his most memorable and stomach-churning characters. Here we also meet Tarantino favourite Samuel L Jackson (Avengers Assemble, Star Wars: Episode III), unfortunately in predictable form as the loathsome quisling Stephen.
In a movie full of despicable characters, arterial blood spray and racial prejudice, Django Unchained has the potential to divide audiences, as with director Spike Lee’s refusal to watch it. But when art tries to tackle difficult subjects in atypical ways, it often gives new insights into accepted attitudes.
When all appears lost Django comes face to face with the film’s director in the guise of an Australian slaver with an extremely dodgy accent. After outwitting the men from Down Under, our hero returns to Candieland with vengeful intent. Riding bareback like an American Indian brave, Django reaches the plantation house to save Broomhilda from her evil white captors before exacting his final revenge.
Tarantino’s passion for film resonates throughout his latest creation as he successfully tackles complex issues in an equally dramatic, humorous and brutal manner. With wonderful performances from an excellent cast, Django Unchained is a disconcerting yet entertaining tour de force revealing an American past many would like forget.