Django Unchained

 

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini, Franco Nero 18 cert, general release, 165 min

This brazenly blazing rewrite of US history is fantastically entertaining, writes TARA BRADY

It’s two years before the American Civil War and Django (a carnal, smouldering Jamie Foxx) is working on the chain gang. His brutalised, shackled companions are but shells of men as they’re marched through Texas by the sadistic, whip-happy Speck Brothers: Django, however, retains a defiant, angry glint of humanity.

This sorry caravan is quickly and mercifully intercepted. Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, tremendous), an impossibly loquacious German dentist and bounty hunter, requires Django’s assistance in tracking down the Brittle brothers, a triumvirate of killers.

The immediately likeable Schultz is the flipside of Waltz’s equally verbose Colonel Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. This markedly less evil version makes a generous offer for the slave, the only soul who can identify the trio, and gabbles away like a shrewder Bob Hope in The Paleface. His second time of asking will be rather less comical.

The opening gambit of Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly awaited spaghetti western – a world of epic snowscapes and sound stages photographed by Robert Robertson – marks the start of a beautiful (and rather profitable) friendship. Together Django and Schultz rack up various government bounties and determine to find the former’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), a German-speaking ancestor of blaxploitation hero John Shaft.

Their rescue mission brings them to Candyland, a plantation owned and operated by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in his best performance since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), a lunatic linchpin of the Mandingo fighting circuit.

There’s a moment during 2007’s otherwise pretty corny Freedom Writers in which inner city gal Eva, now half way through reading The Diary of Anne Frank, confronts her predictably inspiring teacher (Hilary Swank): “When is Anne gonna smoke Hitler?” she cries, exasperatedly.

It’s hardly a film that will have troubled an auteur such as Tarantino, but that small exchange rings true. The time-travelling avenger is a universal notion that appeals to every kid possessed with even a slither of imagination but not yet acquainted with the darker implications of cause and effect. Who hasn’t longed to put the barbaric kings and rapist popes of yore in their place? Who hasn’t wanted Lady Justice to traverse dead centuries and make like Hattori Hanzô with her blade?

Tarantino knows as much; he, of course, has already smoked Hitler in a movie theatre through the agency of a Jewish woman and her black lover. It’s not how WWII Iended according to the history books – it’s a vast improvement.

Thus, Django Unchained borrows structurally from the spaghetti western and the rape-revenge fantasy to avert any need for the impending split in the Union. Sly references to Gone with the Wind and The Dukes of Hazzard decimate the whitewashed depictions of plantation life offered up since the advent of moving pictures. Slavery in Django Unchained is unflinchingly inhumane and violent.

The proudly postmodern director charts a pop cultural expanse that takes in every blaring Italian horse opera (original Django Franco Nero props up the bar) and every western since The Great Train Robbery (Edwin Porter looks out from a Wanted poster).

For Tarantino, however, the Deep South and slavery is complicated, more complicated even, than the rendition found in Spielberg’s appropriately convoluted Lincoln. This is the work of an older, wiser screenwriter and film-maker than the movie-loving author of True Romance. Here, a lingering frontier culture throws up odd pioneers in the fashion of Klaus Kinski’s Loco and plantation life throws up anachronisms like Samuel L Jackson’s poignantly, militantly loyal Uncle Tom.

In an audacious coup d’état, Tarantino rips up both American history and film canon with a comic reprise of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation set 10 years before the Klan’s official formation and featuring unlikely Klansman Jonah Hill. Who needs facts when there is great vengeance, furious anger and the path of righteousness to attend to?

The magpie deserves our respect. Always. Forever.