Quentin Tarantino digs in to the darker side of American history with Django Unchained, a vitriolic attack on the slave trade masquerading as a homage to the spaghetti western genre. In the same way that Inglourious Basterds rewrote history to provide bloody retribution for the persecuted and right a hideous injustice, so Django does the same for slavery. It marks an interesting new phase in Tarantino's work, one where content is of equal, if not greater, importance than style. That's not to say this is any more accomplished than his best works - there's a good argument to be made for it being a little too long - but it's as nerve-jangling and violently OTT as anything the writer-director has delivered before.
A few years before the American Civil War, bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to assist him in identifying his next target (and payday). Afterwards, finding the slave trade distasteful and Django's skills with a gun promising, he proposes they team up for the winter in the search for Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who they eventually discover has been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy plantation owner who also deals in mandingos - slaves who fight each other to the death in competitions. Django and Schultz pose as mandingo dealers in an attempt to win Broomhilda's freedom.
Tarantino may be in the cusp of turning 50, but there's certainly no evidence of him mellowing out in middle age. The lashings of cartoon violence and anachronistic music splattered all over Unchained are certainly proof of that - familiar traits from the original spaghetti westerns too, lest we forget, along with Spanish scenery standing in for the American West. But his love of pulp and trash cinema is now being brought to bear on a subject with surprisingly strong emotional undercurrents. The pain inflicted on the slaves here is visceral and the anger genuine. Tarantino has written some memorable characters before, but never have they seemed to exist so close to reality.
Lest you grow concerned that he is veering in to social issues territory though, Unchained is still unmistakably a QT product. The sheer delight that his dialogue is capable of mustering is present and correct, providing both humour and suspense. The scene set at Candie's dinner table, where Django and Schutlz are initially guests, is as knuckle-gnawingly tense as anything he's done before. Waltz's German dentist gentleman bags most of the best lines, he being the latest in a long tradition of erudite assassins from Tarantino's pen. Waltz is perfectly cast here, a constant source of wit and energy. Django eventually gets in on the act, coming in to his own during the third act, and Jamie Foxx's quieter performance compliments that of Waltz's very nicely indeed.
The strong supporting cast are also excellent. DiCaprio, in a role Gene Hackman might have played twenty years ago, piles on the deadly charm as Candie, a man whose soul is as rotten as his teeth. But it's a barely recognisable Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the conniving and sinister head of the Candie household staff, who steals the show. A truly repellent figure who has long been cheerfully subservient to his white master, his treatment of Django and others on the plantation is chilling. He also uncomfortably recalls characters of a similar ilk from Hollywood's past, and Tarantino finds time to take a few pot shots at cinema’s early treatment of racism and slavery; there's a particularly good joke at the expense of DW Griffith's silent epic The Birth of a Nation. And look out for a nod to a certain iconic blaxploitation private dick.
The film would have benefited from trimming a bit of fat from its two-and-three-quarter hour running time, particularly where the story meanders along its linear narrative (something not commonly associated with Tarantino pictures). But cinephiles in particular will be more than willing to overlook any such fault.