Sat in the cinema waiting for the much-hyped Django Unchained to hit the big screen, I did not know what to expect. This was not just because Django is the first western to engage with the brutal history of the slave trade – although that was a cause for some intrigue. I’m ashamed to admit that the reason for such anticipation, on my part, was the fact that until a week ago I was a Tarantino virgin, untainted by the violence and weirdness that I knew to characterize so many of his films. But as the stunning Texan landscape rolled into view accompanied by the glorious cry of “DJANGOOOOOOO!” I was instantly hooked – swept away by the landscape, the story and the hero himself.
This was not your classic western. Grabbling with a subject as appalling and delicate as the slave trade is a pretty mountainous task for any film. But to tackle it amidst the slap-stick atmosphere of the spaghetti western? Tarantino could have been bordering on very dangerous territory.
What can I say? I’ve been wrong before! Tarantino totally made it work, peppering his otherwise comic, clever and colourful screenplay with scenes that truly brought to the fore the horrific treatment of slaves at that time. Bloody shoot-outs, over-the-top villains, unexpected cameos and the epitome of cool that was Django himself – this film seamlessly covered multiple genres, from western to love story, historical and political commentary to comedy. We eagerly followed Django and Dr. Schultz on their journeys as bounty hunters across the Wild West and we never knew which way the plot would lead. With twists and turns catapulting us at a break-neck speed, as fast as Django on his trusty steed “Tony”, towards an explosive conclusion, there was no knowing whether our hero would emerge triumphant.
With so many genres and characters to cover, how did Tarantino hold it all together? For me, this was down to the magnetic brilliance of Christoph Waltz. Sinister yet funny, unpredictable yet totally reliable, Dr. Schultz was the true spectacle of the story. Although presenting an unlikely a hero as a dentist turned bounty hunter – two professions that no doubt leave all of us feeling very suspicious and slightly nauseous – in Dr. Schultz, Tarantino and Waltz have crafted a character that the audience will identify with. Silently, subtlety and in his own unique way, Dr. Schultz was fighting for the freedom of slaves, with Waltz producing highly emotive performances displaying Dr. Schultz’s horror and repulsion at scenes of slave cruelty that even Django at times was surprisingly nonchalant about. With his dry sense of humour and caring camaraderie with Django, it was the relationship between the two bounty hunters, rather than that between Django and his long lost love Broomhilda, that nearly had me in tears.
Whilst the show was stolen by Waltz, Jamie Foxx definitely put in a performance that should have deemed him eligible for some BAFTA and Academy nods. Giving John Wayne a run for his money, Foxx created the coolest cowboy the Wild West has ever seen. Another shock factor was Leonardo DiCaprio, who played a villain so sinister that we soon forgot his usual heart-throb persona, his lover-boy looks shattered by a terrifying portrayal of Monsieur Candie, owner of the Candie Plantation. Apparently his performance even terrified his fellow cast members during filming – so you can only imagine how many times I was jumping out of my seat!
With appalling brilliance Django Unchained juxtaposed tough scenes brutal enough to make you squirm with episodes of stunning acting, hilarious dialogue and touching camaraderie. Leaving the cinema, there were only two questions in my mind: why isn’t Christoph Waltz up for Best Actor? And, will the other Tarantino movies that I am rapidly endeavoring to watch live up to this phenomenal piece of cinema?
It’s interesting that two of the highest-nominated films of this year’s Awards Season showdown tackle the subject of slavery. If I had to pick between Lincoln and Django, it would be Django all the way!