The director himself may argue the point, but after the non-performance of Grindhouse in 2007, it certainly seemed like Quentin Tarantino took some time to regroup after the exploitation-themed Death Proof. When he returned to cinemas a mere two years later with Inglorious Basterds, a radical reworking of World War II men on a mission movies, he almost seemed like a new man who had discovered a way to channel his love for off-beat cinema from the exaggerated reality of Kill Bill into other genres, such as the western.
When you consider the kind of themes Tarantino regularly deals with (revenge, violence, racism, feet) the only real surprising fact about him diving headlong into the dusty world of six-shooters and bounty hunters is that he hadn’t thought of doing it sooner and the notoriously chatty auteur takes to it like a duck to water.
Two years before the civil war ripped America a new bullet hole, we join a lowly possession of slaves being marched on their way to whatever God forsaken destination their new owners have decided for them when they’re halted by the unassuming form of well spoken German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. In order to complete a particular bounty, Schultz needs the services of a particular slave named Django (the D is silent) to point out his quarry and after trying to reason with the slave owners, blows them away and takes Django with him.
Thus a new partnership is formed and as the pair make their way across Texas, Schultz gives Django his freedom and teaches him to read, write and schools him on the finer points of the bounty hunting game. However, as the two pair up and reveal more about themselves after tangling with flayboyant plantation owner Big Daddy, Django tells his benefactor about his wife, Broomhilde, who was sold separately from him as punishment for the two trying to escape from their owner and how Django hopes to track her down and free her so they can be together again.
Schultz, utterly smitten with his story due to its similarity to a German folktale agrees to help Django, but things get complicated by the fact that Broomhilde is now the property of rich, egotistical sadist Calvin Candie and is part of the house staff in his mansion at the Candyland plantation.
Arousing Candie’s curiosity by posing as a pair of men interested in buying a fighter to partake in the vicious pastime of “Mandingo” fighting (making two slaves fight to the death), Django and Schultz gain entrance to Candyland after stoking the ego of their bragging host, but they haven’t counted on the shrewd eye of cantankerous, old, head house slave Stephen who is far more in control than anyone has realized.
Those in the know, know that Django is very loosely based on the series of impressively gloomy Italian westerns featuring the legendary Franco Nero in the lead role (who also gives an appropriately eccentric cameo here). But as Inglorious Basterds had nothing much to do with the orginal, 1970’s bout of war-sploitation, this Django has precious little in common with the earlier movies, which is fitting, I suppose because Django Unchained is also subtlety different to Tarantino’s usual style.
In a career loaded with audacious plot twists, deliberately tangled timelines, random busts of violence and some cheeky rewriting of history, quite possibly the most impressive thing about Django Unchained is that QT chooses to barely utilize them (except the violence, of course) in favour of a straight forward narrative that’s stubbonly linear. It’s a smart decision chiefly because the vast amount of plot Tarantino has to move through wouldn’t particularly benefit the plot hopping seen in, say, Inglorious Basterds or Death Proof, nor would the jumbling up of storylines seen in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill help either. No, here Quentin simply relies on a good story, well told and instead ploughs his efforts into making this revisionist western as visceral as you can possibly get.
While maybe not as inclined to show the effect of inclement weather on miserable cowpokes as The Hateful Eight, Tarantino takes gets pains to do this cowboy stuff right and shoots in as many practical locations as her can. When it’s cold, you see the breath emerging from the lungs in white clouds, when it’s hot, people sweat – the director realises that for his crack at a western to work, it has to be tangible as it is violent, and Django Unchained is very, very violent.
Featuring bullet hits that burst like crimson water balloons and a laundry list of horrific happenings that include eyeball gouging, dog mauling and an awful lot of people getting shot in the balls, Tarantino nevertheless differentiates between the harrowing (cruelty against the black characters) and the vengeful (violence against racist slavers).
The cast are magnificent, with Jamie Foxx looking resplendent as he subtly moves from slave, to bounty hunter, to avenging angel and looks damn good while he does it while Christoph Waltz brings his typical eloquent decency to Shultz and nearly makes off with the film. The chemistry between to two is fascinating to watch and the fact that Django is a capable learner thankfully shakes off any sense of “white saviour” about their relationship – but when you talk about double acts and chemistry when talking about Django Unchained, you have to be talking about Calvin Candie and his faithful Stephen.
Quite possibly two of the most stunningly odious characters QT has ever created, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson’s symbiotic duo both leech off each other in spectacular style. DiCaprio is having a ball as the truly monstrous plantation owner who’s vast wealth is dwarfed by his capacity for cruelty and his devastating ignorance (he adores French culture yet knows sweet fuck all about it), but it’s Jackson’s insidious servant who really gets under the skin as he uses every inch of his sneaky guile to worm his way into his master’s affections and even manipulate then to achieve his own ends (witness his chilling LeQuint Dickey Mining Company speech). In comparison, Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda feels more like a goal than a character and she’s somewhat lost in highly enjoyable cameos featuring Don Johnson, John Jarrett, Jonah Hill (making a two-part 21 Jump Street reference with Chaning Tatum’s appearance in Hateful Eight) and whatever the hell Tarantino is passing off as an Australian accent.
Some may understandably feel that Tarantino essentially passing off of a movie about slavery off as a pulply, blaxploitation adventure may be in poor taste and even for a man as notorious as using profanity such as he and even considering the subject matter, he probably dishes out the n-word far more than is strictly necessary, but on the other hand, it’s legitimately thrilling to watch a tennis ball sized holes blown through slaver, or having the living shit beaten out of them with their own whip. Django Unchained is a brutal yet powerful bullet slinger that bursts out the saloon doors fully loaded and guns blazing.
The D may be silent, but the movie makes noise.