For his latest exercise in pulpy throwbacks and balls-to-the-wall homage, Quentin Tarantino once more wipes away the gunk of a zillion B movie tropes to do what he does best: apply a hyper-powered defibrillator to a tuckered out genre while simultaneously celebrating the good, the bad and the ugly.
Introducing Django Unchained, Tarantino’s vision of a Spaghetti Western. The “D” is silent. Everything else in this movie is loud.
Adding to his cartridge of genre reloads — including jewel heist (Reservoir Dogs), chopsocky (Kill Bill I and II ) and hardboiled WWII action (Inglourious Basterds) — Tarantino sources inspiration from the sun-scorched arena of spagbol shoot-em-ups, particularly the work of Italian director Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci’s 1966 original, which opens with a drifter lugging around a coffin he says contains the body of a man named Django, still packs a mighty punch.
Rehashed, though mostly in name and broad themes, with Tarantino’s distinctive tenor — flashy action and audacious monologues underscored with an adoringly violent retro-grunge — Django Unchained hinges on a simple premise: what if the hero of a Western were an African American?
So, in QT’s hungry hands, Django (played with hot-eyed stoicism by Jamie Foxx) is a Deep South slave set free by wandering German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and taught the wicked ways of the wild west as he charts a path to rescue his wife from the hands of rich slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Candie is vile and cultured in the way of dangerously bored well-off men, his disgusting lifestyle and seductively loquacious manner an unsubtle avatar for class prejudice. Candie derives pleasure from watching and exchanging male slaves trained as “mandingos” who fight each other to the death. His plantation, Candyland, ain’t a land of milk and honey.
Tarantino could have pumped out a froth from the mouth homage to pistols at dawn pics in his sleep, but he set his sights on a more ambitious target: to use flashy’n’trashy entertainment as draping for a scolding allegory about entrenched racism in America. It comes together as a searing, angry, magnificent burn to the senses, stitched together with QT’s screwy tradition of breathlessly switching tone, pace and plot.
Not since Pulp Fiction (1994) has Tarantino been this concise, this measured, this contained, this calculated. There’s no doubt the Western genre suits him hand in glove, episodic storylines built on the shoulders of whiskey-drinking tough-talkers who grouse about each other then start shooting. Yes. This is fun stomping ground for Tarantino, a sandpit of hat tips and game-ons.
It’s hard to imagine another writer/director having the audacity — and the chops to back it up — to pull off a scene like the centerpiece moment in Django, a rant by Candie, perfectly performed by DiCaprio, about the supposed inferiority of the black man. Candie retrieves the skull of a former slave from a velvet lined box, explains how the slave shaved his father every day and never considered cutting his throat. He saws the skull open and narrates the black man’s bone structure, talks about why dimples and crevices indicate character traits.
The scene is as good as anything from the Tarantino oeuvre, and it can be interpreted any number of ways. Science and prejudice. Education without moral borders. Fact fudging and silver tongues. If it has a single message it’s “see you in film crit class.”
Re-watch Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta trash talk about cheeseburgers and foot spas in Pulp Fiction and you get a sense how far QT has come, how his conversational pounce can be steered in different directions, from Seinfeldian minutiae into things darkly and profoundly weird. But it’s not a sense of maturity that leaves with you when Django Unchained closes.
It’s the reverse: the freshness, the vitality, the juicy spectacle of it all, the way this multi-barrelled doozie hangs together as a combination of high and low art. The sense that Tarantino, 49, is still the kid in the video store, lurking behind the counter and gasbagging to anyone who will listen about favourite scenes, favourite movies, what works, what sucks, what thrills and bores. With eight features under his belt, he’s still Hollywood’s most distinctive sharpshooter, and the ultimate fusion of artist and fanboy.
Django Unchained’s Australian theatrical release date: January 24, 2013.