Monday, 21 January 2013


Sony Pictures
Opens January 24

If Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009) was a Jewish revenge fantasy, then Django Unchained is very much its American slavery counterpart: an anti-antebellum riposte where the master gets well and truly served; Tarantino taking a big-spurred riding boot to the face of racism and the idyllic notion of the American Deep South, real and imagined.

And like Basterds, which paid homage to the WWII film genre, Django is very much the writer-director-film geek's seemingly unholy yet wholly satisfying marriage of the spaghetti western to blaxploitation. I won't even pretend to have seen half of the films referenced throughout Django Unchained (admittedly, I hadn't heard of most of them), and it matters not if you haven't: Tarantino's film is full-on fun on its own terms.

It's a couple of years out from the American Civil War, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German emigre and former dentist now bounty hunter, has come in search of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Django, whom we first meet shackled to fellow slaves and wearing not much more than a raggedy blanket and a canvas of skin daubed with the scars of a whip, can identify three men, the Brittle brothers, whom Schultz has been hunting.

After "negotiating" Django's freedom with his owners, Schultz completes his mission -- following a funny-bracing set piece on a plantation owned by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and a subsequent comic sketch involving a KKK fashion faux pas -- and offers Django a partnership in the bounty hunting business. Waltz is eloquent and loquacious as the bounty hunter who, like another Dr. King, believes all men are created equal. His partnership terms with Django may not be financially equal (70-30) but he can empathise with a man who will doing anything for love.

For Django's ambition is to find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) -- named by her original German owners (she even sprechen sie Deutsch) -- and Schultz agrees to help. Sold-off separately from Django as punishment for the pair's penchant for running away, Hilde, as Django affectionately calls her, is his whole reason for living, and Django Unchained is, for all its bullets, blood and bravado, a love story. Perhaps not as epic as the German tale Schultz tells of another Brumhilda, rescued by Zeigfried from a dragon on a mountain top, but like his Germanic counterpart, Django is prepared to walk through Hell fire to get her back.

And Foxx gives an impressive performance. He may be in danger early on of being outshone by Waltz, but the nearer Django comes to achieving his goal of rescuing his wife, and the deeper he gets into his various "characters" (a purple-suited valet, a cold-hearted black slaver), Foxx delivers a subtle progression from beaten down compliance to righteous avenging angel.

Hell, as it turns outs, is Candyland, a Mississippi plantation with a nasty reputation and owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Southern dandy with a mean streak. Actually, he's a sadistic son of a bitch and DiCaprio, who rarely plays the bad guy, has rarely been better than he is here. Candie is heavily involved in the "sport" of Mandingo fighting and with very little time or patience for those who waste or insult his time, money or Southern hospitality, which Schultz and Django, under the guise of looking to enter the Mandingo fighting game, well and truly do.

But it's Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen who is an even bigger villain. Hell, he might just be the best villain of cinema 2012. An ebony Iago to Candie's white-skinned Othello, his Uncle Tom houseboy routine -- he runs the "downstairs" of Candyland -- is a mask for a self-loathing black man who's not about to surrender what semblance of power he's built up over a half century of servitude for the Candie clan; not to a white German dentist-cum-bounty hunter and certainly not to some freed slave with an attitude.

And yes, the 'n' word is dropped as frequently as any throughout Django Unchained, and mostly by Jackson in the film's overly-long and messy third act (where everything comes to a head and goes to hell, and the director's eclectic selection of music tracks start spilling out one after the other like a jukebox on the fritz). But Tarantino, who's been criticised in the past for his penchant for the offensive term (most notably by filmmaker, Spike Lee), may have his best justification yet for the explosive racial epitaph: if not when taking a blowtorch to America's ugly slavery past, then when?

Besides, there is plenty of ugly (gun violence, anyone?) to unnerve and unsettle an audience in Django Unchained. America's history is a bloody and violent one which Hollywood has mostly chosen to sanitize and whitewash. Tarantino may be having his cake and eating it too by simultaneously exposing the ugly truth whilst revelling in it, but depiction isn't endorsement (just ask Kathryn Bigelow) and too ignore the brutally ugly nature of slavery and race relations would be even more offensive.

Still, if you're a fan of Tarantino, or even only familiar with his work, then you pretty much know what you're in for. And then again, maybe not. There's serious intent to go along with the director's usual audacity and bravado. Django Unchained is not a message film by any means but it means to provoke a response beyond instant titillation. But just as Django says of the morally complicated bounty hunting trade, what's not to like?

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