Two years before the American Civil War, a slave named Django is ostensibly bought-and-freed by Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter, on the condition that Django help him track down three criminals so Schultz can claim the bounty on their heads.
And so begins a relatively small portion of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained. I’ll say little about the rest of the film, because I saw it without knowing a scrap of information except that Jamie Foxx was the star, and I’ll not deny someone the similar experience, except to say that this was a fantastic movie that you should definitely see, and in cinemas at that.
Then again, do we expect anything less from Tarantino, and his specific brand of magic-movie-making? I’m aware there’re people out there who don’t like his movies, but I could maybe name three. Everything in Django Unchained is another addition to his repertoire of excellence, as exciting and original, and homaging and referential as we expect from QT, although he’s also shown some remarkable restraint in not including spades upon spades of obscure references and homage distract from the experience – they’re still there of course, but not to the point of saturation.
And of course, there’s an excellent soundtrack to boot, and probably shows some of the most careful selections of a Tarantino soundtrack – some unexpected choices at times, but they all work brilliantly – and even if it is in the context of a Birth of a Nation reference, Verdi’s Requiem is always a thrilling thing to hear in a cinema.
Performance-wise, everyone’s superb. Jamie Foxx, who, Collateral aside, I’ve always found to have a slightly arrogant presence on screen, brings none of it to Django, instead showing great control over the different elements of the character – hardened, world-weary, playful, almost childlike in his naïveté, passionately dedicated to boot, comedic and badass all in one. It’s only after you see some of the different directions the film heads in that you realize how much Foxx is doing with the character when at first it can seem like he’s overshadowed by the outlandish support.
Christoph Waltz is back on Landa-esque form, bringing a surreal exuberance to Schultz (and of course, his horse Frtiz) and he makes for one of the most endearing characters of the last year. Erudite, badass, deceptively ruthless and cunning, all while being this cuddly father-figure type – and somehow not looking like a fool riding a dentist-cart that has a spring-loaded tooth bouncing around on top.
Leonardo DiCaprio is serviceable as Calvin Candie, a villain who turns up in the second half of the film, although, as is part of his character, is somewhat outdone by the characters surrounding him.
Which brings me to Samuel L. Jackson – not since the cruel aunt in Bedevilled have I hated a character so much, and possibly moreso. But that’s also the point, and Jackson’s done a fine job in creating this sinisterly servile snake of a man.
One final note, it’s amazing to see Tarantino’s control of the violence in the film – starting it off with comical excess and gradually shaping it through the film to a point where it’s a very deliberate statement on the brutality of slavery, before bringing those two spectrum-ends together for the final act – this alone probably makes Django Unchained one of Tarantino’s most intelligent films, and it certainly made the experience more than “just another Tarantino.”