I sort of tuned out from Quentin Tarantino’s films somewhere around the preposterous, gleefully violent and painfully stretched out Kill Bill double-header, writing him off somewhat as a flashy attention-grabber who wasn’t really up to the job of sustaining a two hour plus movie without the help of either a talented co-writer (Roger Avery on the brilliant but maybe over-celebrated Pulp Fiction) or some classy source material (Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, on which the brilliant and definitely under-celebrated Jackie Brown was based). His new one Django Unchained has however been getting some good notices, so I figured I’d make the effort this time. I was glad I did. Django, on which QT gets a sole writer’s credit, is as preposterous and gleefully violent as anything that came before, but it’s also gripping, tense, wickedly funny and formidably well acted and shot. It’s just about as downright entertaining as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this century.
What we have here is kind of Roots put in a blender with Once Upon A Time In The West and a couple of lorryloads of ketchup. It’s set in the deep South of America a couple of years before the civil war, with the Django of the title a slave who finds himself unexpectedly freed by a decidedly unconventional and charmingly loquacious German bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz. Dr Schultz needs Django to identify some law breaking overseers with a price on their heads, but he finds himself warming to the freed man and admiring his facility with firearms and eventually agrees to help him locate his wife, who has been sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi. After tracing the woman they hatch a plan to retrieve her, but this will mean putting a con over on the ruthless and capricious Calvin Candie and you just know it’s not going to end peacefully with a gentlemanly handshake.
Django is a long film, but it doesn’t mess about: the tone is set from the first scene, an immediately unnerving confrontation between the unfailingly urbane and courteous Schultz and a pair of suspicious slave traders. Tarantino has a real gift for concocting scintillating and unpredictable stand-offs in which one can sense the violence seething beneath the verbal exchanges, waiting for the slightest of false moves or facial tics as an excuse to erupt, and in this film he’s thankfully been able to come up with a compelling through line into which he can work them. And for the most part he also sticks to the rule book as regards letting a story flow and not getting all non-linear on our ass – while the jigsaw timeline aspect of Pulp Fiction was actually really refreshing and unusual at the time, these kind of games seemed to get pretty wearying pretty quickly, and it’s nice that Django proceeds in broadly chronological order, save the handful of flashbacks necessary to avoid an unnecessarily distended running time. This story has at its heart a highly perilous confidence trick, and while the scenes required to put all the elements in place unfold at an unhurried pace it’s well worth the preparation for the nailbiting and startlingly explosive climax at Candie’s lavish ranchhouse.
QT has also got a fairly impeccable talent for casting, and here he really excels. Jamie Foxx broods and smoulders mightily as the wronged Django, but he also allows the intelligence of the character to show through, and he’s not half bad with a shooter either. Leonardo DiCaprio renders Candie as a truly vile and preening bully, but he’s charming as well, and knows when he’s better off making a tactical retreat. The standout performance of the lot is Christoph Waltz, sporting an exceptional beard as Dr Schultz, a man who appears able to talk his way round or out of any extreme situation but is also perfectly comfortable when the only course of action available is to use the pistol concealed up his sleeve. Schultz is one of those rare movie characters you feel like spending quality time with – you’d be happy to have him round for a takeaway, or to sort your tax returns, or to fix your plumbing while simultaneously explaining references in Goethe. Give this man an Oscar now.
It does of course all end with some viscerally bloody action sequences, which might put even hardened Tarantino watchers off their tea. The last half hour or so was for me probably the least interesting bit of the film as all the dramatic tension has now been released, but you can’t fault it for not being a big finish, and I would rate these as one or two of the most pleasingly lurid and dynamic shootouts I’ve yet seen on screen. Did remind me a bit of Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah directs Salad Days” skit, though.
Overall however Django is some kind of triumph, and respect is due to Tarantino for carrying on ploughing his furrow with such unapologetic vigour, wit and expertise. Everything’s fair game and shocking the audience is part of the job – for example, it’s telling that the end credits begin with an assurance that no horses were harmed in the making of the movie. If true, there are some pretty sophisticated special effects going on here that passed me right by.