Tarantino has already made a film about a motley band of Jewish soldiers taking bloody revenge against the Nazis – now he’s turned his attentions to that great American atrocity: slavery. Maybe next he’ll direct a caper movie set on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.
Django Unchained has all the oil-spill slickness of your regular Tarantino jaunt but is interjected with truly horrific scenes of slaves being abused and tortured by their Deep South “owners”. No holds are barred – branding, eye-gouging, castration (including a gratuitous between-the-legs shot of Jamie Foxx’s Django chained upside-down) – it’s all here.
It is made all the more uncomfortable by just how easy to digest it all is (a few notable scenes aside – you’ll recognise them, trust me). The dialogue fizzes like a hail of bullets; the set pieces make you wince and grin and cover your eyes.
But should a movie about slavery be this much fun? There’s certainly no shortage of things to take offence at. The N-word is deployed as punctuation; the violence and intimidation against the black characters is so deeply ingrained in the film’s DNA that you find yourself becoming numbed to it (at a sliver under three hours, you have plenty of time to adapt); even a free Django selects an outfit for himself that is reminiscent of the horribly racist 1950s TV series The Black and White Minstrel Show.
The movie falls into two loose halves – the first being a Spaghetti Western-inspired revenge drama, with bounty-hunter Dr King Schultz (a sublime Christoph Waltz) freeing the enslaved Django (“the ‘D’ is silent”) to help him identify a group of wanted men. As the pair tear a path through the spectacular scenery of the American south, Django proves himself to be a deadly marksman and they strike a deal: Django will be Schultz’s partner if Schultz helps him free his wife.
The second half sees a major change of pace. It feels like an extended build-up to the most extravagant of Tarantino set-pieces; a ramped-up, Deep South version of the climax of his 2003 movie Kill Bill (part one), complete with enough blood to drown an elephant. Tarantino revels in every exploding gore-pack, every slo-mo droplet of blood, every hunk of flesh and fragment of bone. Heads cave, kneecaps disintegrate, testicles are spattered to the wind.
The whole thing survives on the strength of its cast. Waltz is compulsively watchable as the softly spoken bounty-hunter, surpassed only by Samuel L Jackson’s terrifying, grotesque Uncle Tom-figure, who helps the white plantation owner stay on top of his slaves. Leonardo DiCaprio also shines as the slightly dim land-owner who runs a lucrative side-business in Mandingo (death fights between slaves).
Django Unchained is the product of a director who long ago stopped caring if he offends people (in fact, probably didn’t really care in the first place); and make no bones about it: it will offend people. But this is a slavery film made the only way Tarantino knows how, and in a way no-one else could. It may be blunt, with bullets and one-liners taking precedence over moral ambiguity, but it is spectacular in its ambition and impeccably executed (to use an appropriate word). It’s not the director’s best but it’s not far short.
First published in City A.M.