There is something special about a Quentin Tarantino film; an almost inescapable feeling of excitement when the opening fade from black occurs. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ‘Southern’, a genre film with mythic elements and outsized characters unencumbered but not ignorant of the moral evils inherent in the stage where the director sets his scene.
Django Unchained is a brutal tale of retribution, a fiercely propelled slugfest which works less as a sobering document of the slave trade and more as a blood soaked morality play. Jamie Foxx makes a fearless case as the vengeful husband rallying against the world with a stirring physical performance and a deft touch with Tarantino’s dialogue. He and Waltz strike up an engaging friendship which is rightfully placed at the heart of the film. While Tarantino has set himself a very high standard, the ‘Unchaining’ scene which opens the film is nowhere near as strong as the introduction of Hans Landa, Django Unchained follows Inglourious Basterds in the director’s bloody romp through history with the anachronistic music choices and sensation madcap violence as thrilling as ever.
Tarantino seems to have found his balance here as well. The soul-searching conversations between the kills call to mind the best moments of Jackie Brown and the set piece bulletfests are as visceral and well staged as ever. There is a cartoonish quality to the slave owners, Don Johnson’s Big Daddy strays close to parody at times, but their soul-eroding hold over their slaves is never played for laughs. When Leonardo DiCaprio turns up as Calvin Candie, powerful proprietor of the Candieland plantation, it is as he watches two slaves fighting to the death. In typical fashion Tarantino does not shy away from the explicit violence, and this version of Orpheus (and his German dentist friend) finds himself in a very dangerous Underworld with demons and overlords legion.
To rally the audience through a series of narrative beats the ebb and flow of cold reflection and striking violence is perfectly handled. Until the very end, when the director shows his hand (and the rest of himself) there is barely a misstep. It’s arguable that Tarantino is now too famous, and his films too distinctive, to appear in a supporting role, yet here he turns up with a bad hat and foul accent just as the film is about to give us the final twist of the knife and kicks the spirit of the film in the gut. It recovers, but only because of the good work done throughout by the cast, Samuel L. Jackson in particular gives a performance of the level rarely seen from the actor (particularly in Tarantino’s own films), and when the credits roll it feels complete, an immensely satisfying journey comes to an end.
It isn’t the director’s best work by any means, but it retains the excitement and punch inherent in his films. With a couple of fine performances, Tarantino’s trademark playfulness and verve Django Unchained is a lot of fun. A bloodthirsty exploration of the personality of vengeance against the weight, but not the pull, of a dark time in American history.