It must be hard to be a truly great artist constantly judged against your previous masterpieces. These days when McCartney releases a new album he must know in his heart of hearts whatever he farts out will never be a patch on Rubber Soul no matter how hard he tries.
Same may be said for Tarantino who in recent years has had endure the burden of expectation with each of his subsequent releases compared to the cinematic alchemy that was Pulp Fiction. When you have been at the very top of your game like he has its a wonder he gets out of bed at all.
Whilst Django Unchained is not quite in that category, it is a fine film and a return to form melding Tarantino's love of blaxpolitation, spaghetti westerns, martial arts sensibilities and comic book flourishes into a beguiling Southern gumbo.
Jamie Foxx plays the titular Django, a whip scarred slave who wins his freedom after entering into partnership with German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who kills Django's captors as they lead him in chains through the Texan back woods.
Schultz interest in Django is initially all business as he needs him to point out a trio of wanted brothers residing at a nearby plantation. Their partnership soon develops and Schultz teaches him the art of bounty hunting.
‘You kill white folk for money. What’s not to like?’
Their relationship fosters a degree of responsibility in Schultz who feels duty bound to help Django in his mission to find his missing slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is currently in the hands of dastardly plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with a fine beard and a great line in passive-aggressive gentility.
The violence then strays into cartoonish Wild Bunch territory when Tarantino mainstay Samuel L Jackson, here virtually unrecognisable as a vile old Uncle Tom cronie, uncovers the pair's ulterior motives. With their intentions exposed Django takes on Candie's henchmen and end up redecorating the inside of his mansion in crimson.
A lot of guilty white liberals and militant blacks get touchy, perhaps justifiably, when the subject of slavery gets brought up in film. There has been criticism about Tarantino's use of the word "nigger" which is sprinkled liberally throughout the film and the fact that it is white man who ultimately has to give Django his freedom.
Critics need to be reminded that there aren't many directors who have even dared to tackle this shameful period in America's history and Tarantino's script should be taken into context, politically correctness wasn't really that well established in the 1800's. If anything he should be applauded for shining a post modern light on America's tawdry past. Most importantly people need to remember this a movie not a documentary.
It's maybe a sign of how far the civil rights movement has come when the slavery depicted is too shocking to countenance, like the behaviour of an alien race or beings from an alternate universe. How did whites feel it OK to own black people and trade them like cattle? Tarantino may cover the subject of slavery in his usual stylised fashion and he does take a few artistic liberties with the facts, (mandingo fighting never really happened, slaves did ride horses and dogs were used to track not tear apart their quarry) but none of the portrayals are gratuitous and you can be sure the reality of slave life was far worse than that depicted here.
Tarantino is not a director frightened to play with convention and like all great artists has cherry picked liberally from cinematic history, in this case from Sergio Corbucci's orignal Django, the entire Sergio Leone cannon and forgotten blaxpolitation films like Mandingo and Boss Nigger. It is beautifully shot (credit to cinematographer Robert Richardson), imaginatively constructed and despite the nods to his earlier inspirations, entirely Tarantino.
The verbal sparring between the delicious Waltz (who proves beyond doubt that his star turn in Inglorious Basterds was no fluke) and DiCaprio (who has proved over the years to be a damn fine actor and much more than just a pretty face) is worth the ticket price alone. Waltz has a wonderful knack of being utterly engaging in his performances. He could read you the installation instructions on photocopier toner and still appear captivating.
It is a testament to Tarantino that the 2hrs 45 running time flies by but he really needs a strong editor to get tough with him and trim off the fat as latter films have had a whiff of over indulgence about them. A few scenes drag on, the middle is a bit flabby and Tarantino's customary cameo (and abysmal Aussie accent) would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
Tarantino has said Django isn't so much a Western as a "Southern". Whatever you label it, you can be assured of Tarantino's stylistic melange running through it like a stick of rock. He has covered crime, noir, war, blaxploitation, heist and martial arts genres. Imagine what he could do with a straight up horror. I can just see Samuel L Jackson in a hockey mask.