Ah, Quentin Tarantino, what genre will he bring his usual mix of exploitation cinema, sharp dialogue and stylised violence to next? Such is the question we have asked ourselves every few years since he burst onto the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. His best film remains 1994's Pulp Fiction, a walk on the dark side of the Los Angeles underworld. Since then we have had Tarantino does Kung Fu, Tarantino does Exploitation and Tarantino does World War 2 with varying degrees of success. All of them had their moments of greatness but so often the director's sense of style has overburdened the film's storyline. It becomes too much. His latest opus is a slavery themed western and is perhaps his best film in over a decade. It is perhaps the perfect match between genre and director.
In 1858 on a dark and cold Texas night, a group of chained slaves are wandering through the darkness after their new owners. Into this scene steps Dr King Schultz played by the excellent Christoph Waltz, a German ex-dentist and bounty hunter on the trail of three n'er do wells named the Brittle Brothers. One of the slaves is in a position to help the good doctor as he can put a face to the names on his list. This slave is Django, played by Jamie Foxx. After our first bout of brutal violence, Django falls into the hands of Dr King and together they set off after their bounty. A bond soon develops between the two and on their travels Django reveals that he has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda. Having captured the evil Brittles, they vow to work together to save Broomhilda from the evil clutches of Calvin Candie, her new master and owner of the Candyland plantation played with wilful abandon by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The spaghetti western as envisioned by masters like Sergio Leone, is a genre close to my heart and is obvious from the opening frame that Tarantino both loves and understands the mechanics of such films. They are an epic battle between the irredeemably bad and the indisputably good. In our case, the good are Django and King Schultz while the bad are undoubtedly Calvin and his evil house servant Stephen, a fine turn from an unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson. Another telling trait of the Italian westerns made by Leone & Co from the 1960's onward were that they very much approached the old west from a revisionist position, it was a dark, bloody and lawless place full of bad men. This is definitely something which Django Unchained plays up. While at times beautifully shot and filled with gorgeous scenery, this is ultimately a brutal tale of revenge and Tarantino as is his wont doesn't shield us from this violence.
Much has been made of both the level of violence and its supposed effect on society and indeed that somehow the film belittles the horrors of slavery through its copious use of the N word. I fail to see how it does anything other than shove the sheer terror that was slavery in the antebellum south into our faces and says look this is how it was. It is brutal and feels terribly real all the same.
The western and Tarantino are a perfect match because his usual excesses feel at home here and they never grate as they might in a different genre. This is above all an enjoyable film and it wears its running time well without overstaying its welcome. A definite must see.