In the nineties, Quentin Tarantino gave an interview with the Independent on Sunday where he spoke about how he would “run” to the cinema every time a new Martin Scorsese film came out. Tarantino himself continues to have the same effect on millions of film goers worldwide who, ever since his debut Reservoir Dogs in 1992, will take the time, effort and pay the money, to see anything Tarantino does on the big screen. And his latest offering, Django Unchained doesn’t disappoint.
The original Django was the eponymous hero of an Italian spaghetti western from 1966 which, as Alex Cox explained in his Moviedrome introduction, when it was finally first aired in the UK around 25 years after its release, derived from A Fistful of Dollars itself “a rip-off of” Yojimbo. It was banned for its violence originally, although Cox points out the violence is mild by later standards (i.e. average Schwarzenegger fare), yet highly stylized, improbable and exorbitant.
They are all attributes Cox loved about that film and there is no doubt Tarantino did too; we already know the influence Django’s ear-cutting scene must have had on him, and with Django Unchained he has now made his own stylish Western with a hero that follows in the tradition of the original Django, who inspired Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come and then Joe Strummer to write the reggae song ‘Don’t Tango With Django’.
In Django Unchained there are actually two heroes, with two fantastic lead performances by Jamie Foxx, playing the freed slave Django, and Christopher Waltz, the bounty hunter with a moral compass who frees Django, takes him under his wing and then walks it like he talks it.
It’s an excellent performance by Waltz, convincing as a daring, crusading and authoritative master of his profession, with flashes of brilliant comic timing when necessary, that is essential to the heart of the film as Tarantino successfully manipulates the audience like a latter-day Alfred Hitchcock.
In the first part of the film the violence is almost poetic at times, with blood spluttering on white cotton fields, as we are already willing the good guys on in the heat of battle. And then, as our heroes enter new territory, the violence suddenly becomes brutal and deliberately uncomfortable to watch, arguably just a little window into the darkness of the villains Tarantino is dealing with and as uncompromising as the scene-setting racist language throughout the film.
It inevitably leads to a pulsating climax where again the violence is at times cathartic, end even occasionally played for laughs in a grim situation.
Throughout the dialogue is excellent. The one-liners, such as the phrase about the sharpest shooter in the South, seem perfect but also, when Leonardo DiCaprio is spouting the most ignorant right-wing rant (cleverly delivered in a style that is both confident and aggressive yet somehow flustered) Tarantino’s words are simultaneously reminding his audience of a history of oppression.
Not that there are many long stretches of dialogue that are more familiar with European cinema – in fact many of the lines are usually conversational, at times developing the characters and creating tension, such as during the ride to the fictional Candieland, where Django shows his metal as Waltz’s Dr Shultz is close to buckling, or throughout the film in the one-to-one dialogue between Django and Shultz, seemingly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
There is comedy throughout, with the KKK scene laugh out loud funny, and Tarantino showing he can do Monty Python as well as Sergio Corbuci and Sergio Leonne all in the same film.
Released within weeks of Martin McDonagh’s second film, Seven Psychopaths, the disappointing long-awaited follow-up to his wonderful debut In Bruges, Django Unchained shows how far Tarantino is ahead of the rest of the field. Where McDonagh has made a film about failing to make a film, with the dialogue and characters not really working, despite a strong cast and a self-contained critique, Django Unchained is made by a film-maker with no doubt, just utter conviction.
As always with a Tarantino film, the score and the graphics are terrific, and as with all his other films, it feels like it will be worth a second viewing sooner rather than later. In cinema terms it may be considered a long film, but it is less than the length of three episodes of quality twenty-first century television drama watched back-to-back, and in that perspective not a second is wasted.
The value of the best part of three hours in a sold-out showing inside a nice cinema in central London for less than £15 on a late Saturday afternoon the day after release puts other more expensive alternatives into perspective and Tarintino’s fans have been served well.
It is highly skilled film-making and a hugely enjoyable film.
With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape that European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley‘ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.