“You had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”
Quentin Tarantino follows the success of Inglorious Basterds with another outlandish historical revision, but instead of targeting the Second World War subgenre, the acclaimed director sets his sights on western mythology for his reimagining of the legendary Django. Amplifying the spaghetti western undertones that lingered throughout Inglorious Basterds, and free from the shackles of the original narrative, Tarantino delivers a powerfully wild, provocative and imaginative revisionist western.
Like many western directors, Tarantino approaches the genre with historic elasticity and sets his film within a fictional period that combines many significant historical developments that actually occurred several years apart. Though Django Unchained is ostensibly set within the antebellum era of pre-Civil War America, it exists within this mythological era. Contrary to the sixties spaghetti western classic on which it is based, it follows a freed slave, who joins forces with notorious German bounty hunter, and former dentist, Dr. King Schultz in order to free his wife from the ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie.
While the earliest westerns were an extension of reality that showcased the positivity surrounding the birth of the nation, many directors maintained the genre conventions, but approached their films from a revisionist perspective in order to highlight the atrocities that occurred during this era of cultural expansion. Tarantino turns the savagery of slavery into a piece of pulp fiction in this illuminating and compelling indictment of America’s past.
At the heart of Tarantino’s fascinating narrative are what at first seems like two quintessential western protagonists, but over the course of the film these characters develop a moral ambiguity that reinforces the ethical complexities of the period. Both operating as bounty hunters, Django and Schultz believe their frontier justice is justifiable as righteous judgement for the horrors that they, particularly Django, and so many others have suffered at the hands of the people they kill.
The whole cast greatly benefits from Tarantino’s screenwriting expertise and both Jamie Foxx and Christophe Waltz take the opportunity to mould immaculate performances. Foxx marries the suppressed angered and sharp-wit that is central to his vengeful, fish-out-of-water, character and shares exceptional chemistry with his co-star. Additionally, Waltz brings the show-stealing effervescence of his supporting role in Inglorious and makes the most of the increased screen time to provide another unrestrained performance. In Waltz, Tarantino has unearthed a hidden gem of immense talent.
The film’s antagonist is the only morally-unequivocal main character in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is charismatic and delightfully menacing in his depiction of the viciously comic villain and his career-best performance as the fiery plantation owner results in every moment he appears on screen carrying an overwhelming tension.
Not only does Tarantino’s luxuriously crafted dialogue provide his actors with the platform for their stunning performances, but every element of his authorial style is perfectly suited to the western genre. Bringing his own directorial traits while also embracing references to the genre’s classics Tarantino successfully updates the genre like no other director has done before. Blending the soundtrack from the original film’s score with contemporary songs makes Django Unchained the perfect homage to the western genre. Furthermore, the use of excessive violence that the film has been rashly criticised for is actually a clever expansion of the over-exaggerated theatrics that legendary westerns are famed for.
Tarantino’s style is born from an unyielding passion for cinema. Like many of his previous films Django Unchained is a combination of homage and critique, but also an entirely unique piece of filmmaking in its own regard.