Quentin Tarantino’s latest, a mighty, history-rewriting epic that transposes the ultra-violent wish-fulfillment of his Inglourious Basterds to the old West (actually South), has upset many (including QT’s grumpy pal Spike Lee) for its ‘trivialising’ and/or ‘sensationalising’ of America’s shameful past, and perhaps present, of slavery and the most vicious racism, as well as its liberal use of (you guessed it) ‘the N word’.
And yet there is a morally upright point here amid the splashiest gore in Tarantino’s canon, as this is, as always, about the movies, the lies they tell and the truths they carefully omit, and how they can also be used to boldly remind audiences of the ugliest and most long-hidden of truths.
Set two years before the Civil War, this opens after deliberately ‘grindhouse-ish’ and ‘Spaghetti Western’-style credits with a chain of slaves making their way through a cold night and approached by travelling dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, aka Landa ‘The Hunter’ from Basterds), who wants to purchase one for his work which, of course, actually turns out to be bounty hunting. Selecting Django (Jamie Foxx) from the group, Schultz finds that the guy is a natural (“Kill white men and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”, he notes) and, after a winter of successful executions, big paydays and cult cameo players galore, Schultz fulfills his side of their bargain by accompanying Django to the Mississippi plantation ‘Candyland’ to assist in the forced freeing of Django’s wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington), which pits them against psychopathic dandy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who almost played Waltz’s role in Basterds) and, more uneasily, Steven (longtime Tarantino mate Samuel L. Jackson), head servant, collaborator and apologist (and the character that would have most offended Spike Lee - if he’d actually watched the damn thing).
QT’s longest movie yet again demonstrates that his getting-on mind is still like some pop-cultural magpie’s nest, with a lovely tip of the hat to ‘the other Django’ Franco Nero, a soundtrack that veers from Ennio Morricone scoring to the heaviest hip hop, cinematography and sweaty atmospherics that somehow manage to be both sumptuously beautiful and deliberately artificial, and a handful of electrifying performances, particularly in the murderously chummy interplay that goes on between Foxx and Waltz. And while it certainly courts controversy like rabble-rousing Hell, it is not a racist film, as this longtime-hip auteur pulls out all the cinematic stops to show you the past that the awfully white American Cinema never dared depict.