Quentin Tarantino has spent the second half of his career the exploitation films of his youth, ones that function as revenge fantasies in one way or another. Whether it’s Uma Thurman hunting down the man who betrayed her in Kill Bill or Brad Pitt’s unit of Jewish soldiers re-writing history by killing Hitler in a hail of bullets, Tarantino’s obsession with revenge genre has culminated in Django Unchained – his finest film in over a decade and a half.
Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a slave who finds himself freed from servitude by a wandering German bounty hunter (Inglourious Basterds alum Christoph Waltz in his second Oscar-winning performance). The two of them strike a deal: if Django aids him in tracking down a wanted trio of brothers, Waltz will teach him everything he knows about the bounty trade and help him find his wife (Kerry Washington).
Their search will eventually take them to the country estate of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave owner with the airs of an eccentric millionaire whose passions seemingly lie in ‘mandingo fights’. Waltz and Foxx quickly discover what this entails when they witness a slave brawl in a private members club. Tarantino shoots the scene like the fireside wrestling moment from Women in Love. Except in this version, Oliver Reed would have ended up much deader.
As always, Tarantino’s strength has always laid in his ability to write cracking dialogue and create characters that defy expectations in interesting ways. While most of the bit parts are utterly cartoonish in their racism, DiCaprio’s character operates by a code. It’s a code based on his sense of God-given entitlement and a genuine belief that slaves are less than human: notions which are channelled through the manners and honour of a Southern gentleman.
But the secret weapon of Tarantino’s ensemble may actually be Samuel L Jackson. Playing DiCaprio’s favoured house-slave, an Uncle Tom who takes on darker layers the more we see of him. It’s a refreshing change from the cool, angry men Jackson seems to specialise in these days and his performance is incredibly smart.
Plus we also mustn’t forget Jamie Foxx: in a cast full of weird and wonderful characters, he becomes the unflappable Eastwood-like hero of the piece, dispensing with the kind of cocky swagger he’s known for as an actor. In years to come, we suspect the role he’ll be most remembered for is the one right here in this film.
As with just about every one of Tarantino’s film, Django’s structure is much more episodic than your average blockbuster, which would make a lesser film flag in the middle. But the movie doesn’t feel anything like its 2 hours and 45 minutes: testament to its director’s craft and the laser-focused performances of its cast.
If you didn’t manage to catch Django Unchained at the cinema, you really must. It’s now available to buy and rent at blinkbox.