I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino since I first saw Reservoir Dogs one Sunday evening in the late 1990s on Channel 4, through a sea of interference on my little old 15” TV, with his second movie, Pulp Fiction, standing out as a highlight among highlights once I had seen it and only Jackie Brown failing to ignite my interest (possibly I need to give it a rewatch and study up on Blaxploitation first).
So it was I came to Django Unchained with high expectations, but thankfully tempered by the time between the hype and controversy around its release and my watching.
Starting off as it means to go on we are introduced to Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) right away as Tarantino demonstrates he’s not lost any of his ability to create a tense standoff that he seemed to perfect in Dogs and has continued to develop since.
From this scene on the film really does belong, for the most part, to Waltz, as he leads the first half of the movie, carrying most of the dialogue, which as ever from Tarantino is a unique mix of current and period that is at once perfectly suited but also hugely incongruous, but then the same goes for the style of many of his movies, especially since Kill Bill.
Waltz really is only challenged once Schultz and Django arrive at Candyland and meet Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and his manservant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who stand up in both performance and charisma with Waltz.
As ever with Tarantino what we get a mixture of extended dialogue (that in other hands could feel too long), stylistic montage and obscenely over the top action and violence, which, here, he balances as perfectly as he ever has making for a film that, while certainly never short, never seemed to drag and kept things tense throughout.
Of course, as with all his films, this is Tarantino’s version of a previously tired genre, and its here he seems to have missed the mark a bit. Supposedly aping the Spaghetti Western what we get here is a movie that keeps many of the conventions, revenge, gunfights and the old west, but actually locates them in a recognisable America, something that Spaghetti Westerns really never did, in my experience, as they were famously made in Europe, generally in Spain and financed by Italy, hence the name.
This though is a minor thing as, for the duration of the film, I was swept along in its action-adventure-revenge plot so all the other trappings are only things brought to mind after the film is over.
Another Tarantino mainstay is the way he courts controversy and, once again, here it’s through his use of language and, specifically, the use of “the N-word” (to use the standard euphemism). While I understand why this word is loaded and a challenge, in Django Unchained its use never felt uncomfortable due to the context, and simply, the fact that this is what we’ve come to expect from Tarantino and he’s pretty much created his own universe now where the standard rules don’t really apply.
To me this is a major achievement as he manages to create a total sense of escapism like few others outside of the sci-fi or fantasy genres – after all, how else could the ending of Inglorious Basterds worked in any other way.
After watching Django Unchained I am intrigued to go back and watch Sergio Corbucci’s original Django, just to see where Tarantino started from to create this, and also rewatch some of Tarantino’s own earlier work, but, for now, this has entered the list of his works certainly above Inglorious Basterds and possible almost reaching as high as Pulp Fiction – certainly this was all round an excellent movie combining action and performance with real visual style.