Django Unchained ★★★★
Quentin Tarantino is a sort of Marmite among film-makers; people either like his work or loathe it. I like it. Very much, and largely for two reasons — his idiosyncratic and unconventional approach to every subject he chooses and the richness of his dialogue. It’s this that, most of all, distinguishes him from his contemporary writer/directors. I invariably leave his movies relishing the dialogue as much as the story and the action.
That was particularly true of his masterpiece Pulp Fiction but is true, too, of Django Unchained, for which (as with Pulp Fiction) he won the Oscar for best original screenplay and which works on many levels — as a homage to spaghetti westerns (in particular Sergio Corbucci’s Django), as a satire on slavery and racism in antebellum America, as a tense drama, as a love story and, surprisingly, as a comedy.
It is also very violent but then all Tarantino’s movies are because he picks violent subjects. What’s more, that dialogue is liberally spattered with four-letter oaths and the now infamous n-word, which crops up in most of his movies and has earned him much criticism. Here, though distasteful, it’s probably forgivable because that’s how blacks were described in America, before, during and for long after the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave bought during a bloody encounter by Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, who offers him his freedom in return for helping track down a pair of killers with high prices on their heads. Another part of their bargain is that Schultz will help Django free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is also a slave on an estate owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What follows is a hectic, blood-, bullet- and body-splattered adventure of some complexity, which without overstressing the point brings out the gross enormity of slavery. Much of the later action takes place on Candie’s ranch where he and Schultz strive to outwit each other while haggling over whether Broomhilda is for sale and what her price should be. It’s a highly entertaining film full of surprises as Tarantino’s work often is. For instance, most unusually, DiCaprio plays a villain. And, also unusually, Samuel L Jackson turns up as DiCaprio’s toadying, Uncle Tom of a personal slave. And there is a third surprise — more of a shock, really — which you will have to discover for yourselves.
The role of Django was originally offered to Will Smith, who turned it down because, he said, it wasn’t the starring part. In that he was quite right. Foxx, DiCaprio and the rest are fine but the undoubted star of the film is Waltz, who was duly and properly rewarded with the Oscar for best supporting actor.
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