Although essentially a riff on the spaghetti western genre, Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is in fact more a “southern” than a “western”. It is mainly influenced by the disreputable films of Sergio Corbucci (The Big Silence, and obviously Django) rather than those of Sergio Leone. In fact, the original Django (starring Franco Nero, who has a cameo in this film), was banned in the UK for almost 30 years. Several of the more brutal moments in Django Unchained pay direct homage to that film – the whipping of the girl, the Ku Klux Klan massacre and so forth. Even the title song from that film is reprised here in the opening credits.
The plot concerns slave Django (Jamie Foxx), whose owners come to a violent end at the hands of Germanic bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (the brilliant Christoph Waltz). Django is freed by Schultz, and goes to work for him as a bounty hunter. In return, Schultz promises to help Django free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in a stunningly odious turn).
Performances throughout are strong, particularly from Waltz and DiCaprio. Samuel L Jackson also deserves a special mention as Stephen, Candie’s plantation manager who proves every bit as reprehensible as his master.
As with any Tarantino film, the question of violence rears its ugly head. Obviously all westerns are violent, and Django Unchained echoes the almost cartoon splatter of the pictures that inspired it. Yet for much of the running time the violence is used to highlight on the brutality of slavery. One scene involving a “Mandingo” fight and another involving a runaway slave being torn apart by dogs are stomach-churning in a way that will have you hiding behind your fingers – but for a good reason. The horrors of American slavery should never be forgotten, and Tarantino shows these appalling plantations owners in a necessarily unforgiving light.
Indeed, for about two thirds of its running time, Django Unchained is a very fine piece of work with well written characters and cracking dialogue. But like all Quentin Tarantino’s films, this one delights and infuriates in equal measure. The final stretch feels forced and leaves one thinking the film as a whole could have done with being a good forty minutes shorter. It isn’t so much what happens, but how it happens that bothered me. The screenplay could have been tightened and simplified in a way that ensured the concluding explosion of staggeringly bloody violence felt less like an attempt to outdo The Wild Bunch and more justified by the plot. One does expect such things from the genre (and from a Tarantino film), but a violent revenge western is only satisfying if the final killing rampage feels inevitable rather than gratuitous.
Spiritually speaking, this is hardly a film to recommend, since it extols extreme vengeance as both justifiable and cool. Yet as I mentioned before, the film does take an unflinching look at slavery in its earlier stretches, and it’s never less than entertaining. Obviously if violent 18 certificate westerns aren’t your thing then this is best avoided. But in spite of the disappointing finale, Django Unchained is – for all its flaws – a stylish, gripping and well-acted piece.