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Film Review: Django Unchained

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There is something about Quentin Tarantino's seventh film, Django Unchained, the feels like the director has finally arrived at his destination; combining his signature nods to pulp cinema, instantly recognisable dialogue and directorial idiosyncrasies, to produce a film which is the closest we've come to "quintessential Tarantino".  Quite how it has taken Quentin this long to try his hand at a Western, only he could say, but there is a definite sense that Django is the one we've been promised.

Django Unchained takes place in 1858 in the antebellum era of the Old West.  Whilst being transported across Texas by his owners, our titular anti-hero, Django (Jamie Foxx) is violently acquired by the peripatetic Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz),  a bounty hunter posing as a dentist who needs Django to help him identify a trio of ruthless brothers with a considerable bounty on their heads.  After displaying virtuosity with his pistol, Django agrees to form a partnership with Schultz, in return for help in tracking down his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington); a slave from whom he was separated at an auction after a failed escape attempt.  The unlikely duo soon learn that Hildy (as she is known) is now in the possession of brutal plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and they must concoct a plan to rescue her from the volatile Candie and his sycophantic head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

As the first shot of the barren, genre-defining landscape of the Old West appears and the anachronistic blood-red lettering of the opening credits fill the screen to the sound of Luis Bacalov's title-track, it is obvious that the director is well inside his comfort zone.  Tarantino has used elements of the Spaghetti Western in almost all of his films, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre is apparent in every frame.  The trademark monologues and snappy exchanges that made his name back in the early nineties have never felt more native as they fizz off the tongues of his perfectly assembled cast.  Aesthetically, the film looks fantastic, with the idilic Wyoming landscape looking more like a map painting than a photograph, but although it owes a huge debt to Sergios Leone and Corbucci (director of the 1966 Django), Tarantino's Old West and Deep South also carry his own, unique mark.

Unsurprisingly, Django is littered with cinematic references, the strongest of which are to Richard Fleischer's 70's exploitation flick, Mandingo.  Those who find Tarantino's constant nods to the films of yesteryear a tad geeky or self-indulgent may tut and roll their eyes of a few occasions, but Django is nothing like as effete as the likes of Death Proof or Kill Bill, (from which Django's most obvious allusion is made).  This is a director having an enormous amount of fun, with his whiplash sound effects, quick zooms and deliciously bloody gun battles verging on pastiche.  Tarantino is also on top of his game with the pen.  The story is refreshingly uncluttered, and the screenplay is packed full of great one liners, machismo grandstanding but also has a coarseness that reflects the unpalatable agendas of his antagonists.

The performances are all enjoyable, with special praise reserved for Waltz's cold, yet romantic Dr. Schultz; DiCaprio's repugnant, pretentious Monsieur Candie; and, most of all, for Samuel L. Jackson, who delivers his best performance in decades as the sniveling Stephen - essentially an evil Smithers with a Parkinson's shimmer and a look that could kill, resuscitate, and kill again.  Django's downfall, sadly, is it's running time.  At 2 hours 45 mins, the film feels flabby and loses momentum in its final act.  After reaching its natural conclusion, Tarantino treats us to a twenty-minute coda in which he makes an appearance as an Australian slave driver; a sequence that wouldn't have been missed by anyone, save Quentin himself, if it had ended up on the cutting room floor.

Django Unchained is the Tarantino film we've been waiting for.  It's cool, fierce, and terrific fun, it's just a shame that the great director's bad habits mar what should have been his best film to date.

★★★★☆