(Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Django Unchained seems, at least superficially, to be Quentin Tarantino's most conventional film. The Tarantino of the dazzling early work, all chronological shuffling, extended dialogue scenes and unusual frame compositions, has slowly faded away over the years and movies since. Here he crafts a somewhat predictable revenge Western, with all the familiar genre beats, shootouts and showdowns demanded by the genre.
And yet it is never quite so simple with Tarantino. For this is quite possibly the Tarantino film most loaded with meaning and subtext, its action-blockbuster status smuggling a ferociously angry assault on slavery and the way cinema has treated it into the world's multiplexes almost without warning.
Beyond that, he takes the stuff of cult cinema - Django Unchained is stuffed with references to Spaghetti Westerns which delighted this particular fan of that sub-genre - and somehow turns it into mainstream gold, combining them with allusions to the relatively few films made about slavery, a bit of Peckinpah, and twisting it all around his own distinctive story-telling sensibility.
The story is simple. Bounty Hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, plainly born to speak Tarantino dialogue) needs the help of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to track down three outlaw brothers. He frees the slave and after they have collected the bounty they team up for a winter of wandering, hunting and killing. During this period, King teaches Django his trade and agrees to help him find and free his wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington) who is now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who lives a life of debauchery surrounded by a large court of cutthroats and sycophants on his immense plantation "Candieland" in Kentucky, enjoying Mandingo fights, having runaway slaves torn apart by dogs, and watched over all the while by his chief house servant Stephen (Samuel L Jackson, superb in the first real part he has had in far too long). When Django and King arrive at Candieland, they have a foolproof plan to emerge alive with Brunhilda. But Stephen misses nothing, and he has his own plans.
While undoubtedly around 40 minutes too long, Django Unchained is bloody, rambunctious entertainment throughout. If Tarantino needs to work with an editor or producer unafraid to tell him that certain sequences need to be cut, his writing and gift for crafting a brilliant scene are as matchless as ever.
He retains his extraordinary ability to create tension and then stretch a sequence beyond breaking point through simple conversation and orchestration of the visual elements and this is one genre that organically creates opportunities for him to do just that. Even the scenes that feel a little redundant - a debate between members of a hooded posse on the eyeholes in their hoods is the most glaring example - are frequently inspired; mixing comedy and tension in that effortless Tarantino manner.
If the film has a real weakness, it is an odd one. The hero and heroine both feel somewhat underwritten. Django himself has little personality beyond a truculent desire for revenge and his love for Brunhilda, and we spend so little time with her that she never comes into focus as anything other than an ideal. Indeed, this film has fewer strong female parts than any of Tarantino's other films, which can only partly be explained by the (traditionally intensely male) genre. The other male parts are more impressive - with Schultz and Stephen representing particularly nuanced characterisations.
The soundtrack is a fabulous collection of Spaghetti Western themes by the likes of Morricone, Bacalov and Ortolani, mixed with a few nicely-deployed hip hop tracks, and Robert Richardson, generally a bit of a one-trick pony (his tic is to massively overlight characters from above) makes it all look handsome in a gritty, aged, woodily textured way. Tarantino throws in a few early crash zooms precisely like the ones common in spaghettis, ensures that every gunshot injury gets a ludicrously bloody squib, and generally looks after the details even when the grand narrative drifts a little.
Despite its flaws then, Tarantino knows what he is doing, and he delivers laughs, a handful of terrific action sequences, and a strong love story, all of it based around a clear-eyed view of the horrors of slavery. Like most of his movies, Django Unchained works, and then some.