Release Date: 18th January 2013
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
Set to the backdrop of pre-Civil War America, Quentin Tarantino’s latest grindhouse-infused revenge tale plays heavily on race relations and the 19th century slave trade to justify nearly three hours of kitsch-violent, pulp entertainment. Brazenly juxtaposing the hard-hitting source material with his quintessential stylistic excess, Django demands more than a few nods to the director’s previous theatrical outing Inglourious Basterds in its fictitious treatment of history. However, unlike World War II — where the US can (and will) almost unequivocally spin a tale of victory, virtue and patriotism — slavery’s sordid past is often brushed under the proverbial rug, lacking a honest representation in mainstream cinema. While Tarantino’s latest effort may not be drenched in Hollywood melodrama, Django’s portrayal of pre-abolition America is as visceral as they come; as affective as it is excessive.
Opening with a grandiose title sequence set to Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s ‘Django’ theme, a fitting Spaghetti Western tone is established from the outset. What follows is a fateful encounter between our titular hero (Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter of Germanic origin who enlists Django to help identify the Brittle brothers; a trio of killers with whom Django holds a personal vendetta. Schultz acts as his mentor and friend; an enlightened companion whose ideals of equality are treated as alien as the sight of an African American on horseback. Their quest culminates in an attempt to save Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Washington), from the clutches of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) — the piece’s unnerving, slimy antagonist.
No punches are pulled with regards to the representation of slavery on screen. The opening musical sequence dwells on an enchained, dehumanised group of slaves; their visible breath in the cold air resembling a locomotive as they cut through the landscape. Transgressive flashbacks to Django and Broomhilda’s violent past appear throughout at key moments, usually prior to his exacting of a cathartic, graphic revenge or to offer narrative context to the action portrayed. At its most uncomfortable, Django openly debates the monetary ‘value’ of a human life with Candie pondering an appropriate fate for one runaway slave — in his eyes, a wasted $500 investment.
Tarantino’s signature profanity-laden, snappy dialogue is delivered gainly by the veteran cast. Jamie Foxx provides a fearlessly theatrical leading performance – gracefully navigating between vulnerability and a brutal swagger, commanding the screen from the moment he is released from his shackles – and DiCaprio’s flamboyant, lecherous Candie never ceases to provide copious reasons to wish the character a most horrible end. However, recurring collaborators Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson arguably steal the show. Waltz returns as the moustache-twisting Schultz: a playful, highly-rational bounty hunter with the ability to seemingly charm his way out of almost any grave situation; while Jackson excels as Stephen, Candie’s house slave, whose destructive loyalty, understated cunning and powers of manipulation eventually eclipse the lurid actions of his master.
The stylistic flourishes which have characterised Tarantino’s 20+ year career are ever-present here in Django. Fans will lap up the mexican standoffs, crash zooms, verbose monologues and postmodern soundtrack, as well as a vivacious interplay between comedy and violence; for every moment of genuine shock or horror, there is an over-the-top Looney Tunes-esq comedic beat waiting in the wings to catch you off guard. Interspersed throughout is a deep-seated satire at the expense of conservative America, manifesting itself as both throwaway scathing dialogue from Schultz about an “enlightened North”, to ridiculing the KKK in a charming non-sequitur. But for all its sociopolitical grievances, the deep South is represented beautifully with stunning vistas and detailed production design filling the frame from edge to edge.
In all but its final act, Django feels like the director’s most refined work to date. Here, he shows some semblance of restraint in following a linear narrative without the need for constant digression. In some ways, Django feels similar in structure to the all-too-familiar superhero origin formula which plagued the naughties, although without the undertones of a larger franchise vehicle: the hero is introduced as a mysterious figure with a dark past and humble beginnings, before being taken under the wing of a spiritual guide, donning a fabulous costume and kicking ass from the second act though to the explosive finale. The film peaks a little earlier than it perhaps should have, sapping some momentum from the closing 20 minutes, although the cathartic conclusion and enjoyable lategame cameo appearances make this fleeting moment of indulgence a forgivable aside to what is otherwise an expertly-crafted, entertaining, provocative whole.