Bursting onto the scene in a blaze of cinematic glory with 1992’s classic cult heist movie, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s reputation as an impudent yet ferociously talented writer-director was galvanised 2 years later with the cornerstone of 90’s cinema – Pulp Fiction. Since then he has risen to become arguably the most influential and in-demand film-maker of his generation, entertaining audiences in a way that no one else can despite numerous attempts from others to try and do so (Guy Ritchie, I’m talking to you). With a typically infectious cocktail of vibrant dialogue, pop-culture references and trademark gratuitous violence, Django Unchained will both delight existing fans of the director’s oeuvre whilst attracting many others to possibly his most original and daring work to date.
Inspired by the Spaghetti Westerns of the great Sergios (Leone and Corbucci), Tarantino swaps the Wild West for Antebellum South, five years before the abolition of the slave-trade. The story follows Django (The ‘D’ is silent), coolly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who is given his freedom by the silver-tongued German bounty hunter, King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) in return for helping the latter collect his bounties during the winter. As the relationship between the two deepens, Schulz learns about the sale of Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to separate plantations and promises to help him reunite with his love once their business is complete. The search for Broomhilda takes them to Candyland– the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi – run by sadistic Francophile and phrenology enthusiast, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his equally vile head house-slave, Stephen – chillingly portrayed by frequent Tarantino collaborator, Samuel L. Jackson. Needless to say chaos ensues…
Aside from an array of wonderful performances, stunning cinematography and the customary bad-ass Tarantino soundtrack, the cinematic legacy of Django Unchained should be dominated by its bold and unflinching portrayal of slavery – a subject that many feel has never been properly explored in film despite it being one of the most important, if not the most important part of American history. Tarantino shines a light on America’s shameful past without bombarding the audience with staid history lessons and patronising sanctimony all whilst maintaining his love for juxtaposing audience gasps with audience laughter – a balancing act which he coordinates beautifully. Django Unchained more than anything else shows off the talents of a natural story-teller at the very top of his game.
But where there’s Quentin, there’s controversy and with such combustible subject material comes much criticism. Many cite the frequent use of the ‘n’ word throughout the film as distasteful whilst many others have condemned the director’s supposed aestheticisation of violence, albeit not for the first time. Indeed, though it might be fair to say that course language and excessive gore will always alienate some from this particular director’s filmography, one mustn’t overlook all the other qualities, in this film more than any other, that make him such a fine exponent of his craft; the gorgeous panoramic views of the American wilderness, his carefully chosen close-ups, his capacity to build suspense and his peerless use of music – all merge together to forge an unforgettable cinematic experience which is only intensified by the rich fantasy world he creates, the characters he has lovingly developed and the reputation that he has worked so hard to build. Django Unchained is a delightfully imaginative and incendiary piece of cinema and a fantastic addition to the impressive Tarantino canon.