Set in the Antebellum Deep South, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, focuses on the eponymous character’s (Jamie Foxx) attempt to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) with the aid of a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) from an eccentric plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his surly servant (Samuel L. Jackson). What follows is perhaps the most measured Tarantino film yet.
As a self-proclaimed cinephile, Tarantino likes to explore cinema’s trademark genres and add his own twist (read: swearing and blood). His early work was initially exciting and innovative in a way that appealed to a cine-literate audience, but post-Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s films became even more style-over-substance than they were before, and it wasn’t really until Inglourious Basterds that he had anything new to offer. Blending the Western and Blaxploitation genres seems like it should have been a move Tarantino made years ago, especially considering that he has spent a large portion of his career aping Sergio Leone. To Tarantino’s credit, Django is a great Western epic; it’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, but justifies that length and has a pace that feels considerably brisk.
All the hallmarks of a Tarantino film are present in Django: gratuitous violence, exaggerated and tense dialogue and a superb soundtrack – composed from soundtracks from other Westerns, sounding like a greatest hits of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov. However, we also have the new elements introduced in Inglourious Basterds: enhanced characterisation (as in any), varied dialogue and a visceral reality brought to slavery this time instead of the Holocaust. This new and improved Tarantino is a filmmaker worthy of investing your time into the immense length of Django Unchained.
The performances are fantastic throughout, featuring arguably career highs for the majority of the cast. This certainly is true of Jamie Foxx, who stars as the titular character with a cool underplayed persona that complements the other performances incredibly well. However, much like Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, it’s the other, perhaps more exaggerated, performances that stand out and dwarf his to an extent. Christoph Waltz ostensibly plays the same character he did in Inglourious Basterds (minus being a Nazi), but this still works because it harnesses that same quality of merging Tarantino’s quick-fire script with Waltz’s eloquent style.
As the primary antagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio takes on one of his most intriguing roles yet as deplorable racist francophile, Calvin J. Candie. The comedic theatricality of DiCaprio’s performance – with just the right amount of underlying menace – compliments the character perfectly and demonstrates his versatile ability as an actor. Finally we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the ‘Uncle Tom’ head servant at Candie’s plantation. Much like DiCaprio, Jackson’s role is ludicrously fun and a breathe of fresh air after what feels like a while since we’ve seen him at his best.
The important thing to take notice of is what Django represents for Tarantino. As slick and exciting as his early filmography is, he did sink into something of a mire in the early 2000s. The referential style became overtly self-obsessed and, although at times entertaining, was a stagnation in his style. However, Tarantino has adapted and now focuses far more on the audience’s involvement with his works. Inglourious Basterds was the first glimpse into this development and now with Django Unchained, Tarantino has cemented his development as a mature filmmaker who understands his following and knows how to keep them entertained in new and exciting ways. Love him or hate him, he has achieved a breathtaking and undeniable accomplishment with this, his magnum opus, Django Unchained.