One suspects Tarantino’s creative process begins with him sat at home and thinking of the person his audience would most like to see viciously riddled with bullets. [SPOILER ALERTS] Four years ago, audiences saw Hitler’s face pummelled and mangled with a submachine gun in Inglorious Basterds. Before that, Kill Bill shows The Bride wreaking systematic revenge on each of the Deadly Vipers, who, after failing to kill her and her unborn child, prostituted her comatose body.
But I’m not sure he can ever surpass the catharsis of violence achieved in ‘Django Unchained’. I found myself nearly leaping from the cinema seat when Django (Jamie Foxx), takes his old overseer’s whip to mercilessly lash him into the ground, then shoot him dead, before continuing to empty a six-shooter into his corpse at point blank range just for good measure.
Inevitably, though, ‘Django’ has also come under another kind of fire, and has been lambasted from all corners for its brazen depiction of the antebellum slave trade of America. Iconic black filmmaker Spike Lee somewhat reluctantly led the charge, declaring that he will not even watch the film, saying it is ‘disrespectful to my ancestors’. He later followed up on Twitter: ‘American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.’ However, Jamie Foxx responded to Lee in The Sun, calling the director’s comments ‘irresponsible’. He continued: ‘where is Spike Lee coming from? I mean, I respect Spike, he’s a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he takes shots at his colleagues without looking at the work.’
Numerous scenes made my stomach turn and tears come to my eyes. But this was in their unflinching portrayal of the profound humiliation and indignities of slavery, and never through poor taste or gratuitousness. The ‘mandingo’ fighting and the head-cages worn by the Mississippi slaves are so deeply repulsive precisely because we know they are likely not even exaggerations. And it makes the story of Schultz and Django’s vengeance all the more vicariously satisfying.
And if you ask audiences, they seem to agree; ‘Django’ is already Tarantino’s highest-grossing work to date. And it is already beginning to rake in the awards, taking Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz and Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes. It has also been nominated for 5 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (again for Waltz), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, and Best Cinematography. I don’t think anybody expects ‘Django’ to win Best Picture, but its technical brilliance may well net it a couple of statuettes at the end of February.
Something less for the Academy and more for film buffs is the profusion of in-jokes, allusions and homages that run throughout the movie. Even the title is an explicit reference to two golden-age pictures: 1966’s ‘Django’ and 1959’s ‘Hercules Unchained’. The evocative Luis Bacalov theme from the latter is actually reused as the music overlaying Tarantino’s opening sequence. There are also some incredibly subtle references to old characters and institutions from the Tarantino film-universe peppered throughout, but I’ll leave them for you to spot.
And whatever you think of Tarantino, one cannot deny he does anything but charge like a bull into these debates. The film – what he describes as a ‘Southern’ rather than a ‘Western’ – follows the epic story of a slave, Django, taken on as an assistant bounty hunter by Dr King Schultz, an unintentionally loquacious and formidably clinical man, played immaculately by the breakout star of ‘Inglorious Basterds’, Christoph Waltz. He needs help finding and killing some of his government bounties, and he needs Django to identify them. However, this plot is dealt with in the first hour.
And indeed, aside from considerations of race, audiences’ main gripe has been that the film is simply too long. At nearly three hours, even my enthusiastic attention began to lag as I realised there was not only a second but a third act, beginning with a host of new characters, one of whom is played with a frankly jarring Australian accent by Tarantino himself. I was on the cusp of thinking it one indulgence too many … until the scene eventually played out. I don’t want to give it away, but to this reviewer, the wait was well worth it. Tarantino makes you realise how deeply, deeply satisfying it can be just to see people get their just desserts.
‘Django Unchained’ is everything you want from a Tarantino movie. It is infinitely quotable, the thumping, whistling soundtrack is frequently inspired, and it is absolutely glutted with the blood and guts of deserving criminals.