Fine performances and moments of sudden brutality outshine Tarantino's over-indulgent running time
There are two major films about slavery this season. At one end of the spectrum is Steven Spielberg’s po-faced, self-important abolition drama Lincoln. And the other? Quentin Tarantino’s giddily violent, shockingly profane spaghetti western, Django Unchained. Loosely inspired by the 1966 film Django, starring Franco Nero as the titular coffin-dragging drifter, this sees Jamie Foxx’s Texan slave adopt that famous moniker.
Rescued from a chain-gang by the eccentric German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who wants Django to identify three brothers for him, the pair team up and clean up, ridding the land of lawbreakers. Schultz then promises to help rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), currently being held at the cotton plantation ‘Candie-land’, owned by the malevolent Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) – a man who thinks nothing of setting the dogs on his slaves or watching them fight to the death.
After the fanciful misfire that was his WWII fantasy Inglourious Basterds, this feels like Tarantino right in his wheelhouse. His Basterds Oscar-winner Waltz once again steals the show, relishing every syllable of his character’s hilariously florid vocabulary. But there are other fine performances – particularly DiCaprio and Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson, as Calvin’s utterly loyal man-servant Stephen, both vying to see who can drop the n-word more (regular Tarantino detractor Spike Lee will be apoplectic at the script’s relish in the phrase).
At 165 minutes, it’s overlong – and there are lulls, notably during the extended visit to Candie-land. But such is Tarantino’s ability to punctuate scenes with moments of sudden brutality – bullets, like words, fly around with devastating effect – there’s rarely time for boredom. QT does indulge himself with a cameo that stops the film stone-dead for five minutes. But mostly this is Tarantino Unchained. If you only see one ‘slavery’ film this year, make it this one.
General release on Fri 18 Jan.