The trouble with having a style as well defined as Quentin Tarantino’s is it’s difficult to take the audience by surprise.
QT’s quirks are too well known: the digressive chat, the eclectic casting, the magpie soundtrack, the B-movie makeovers, the button-pushing violence.
A Tarantino western? Surely we know how that’s going to go down. Yes and no.
Tarantino has finally learned to use our expectations against us, giving us a lively, entertaining greatest hits package, with a twist.
After a career as cinema’s greatest sampler, remixing kung fu in Kill Bill and WW2 in Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is looser and more linear, as if Tarantino has swapped his turntable for a battered acoustic and started doing cover versions.
For all the inevitable pastiche (lovingly recreated zoom shots, vintage ’60s theme tunes), there’s a pleasing classicism to Django – a sense this tale has been passed down in countless iterations, from Ford to Leone to Eastwood.
Like a good ballad, the echoes of the past have the freedom to reverberate. Yet the biggest echo is the one Tarantino himself brings, treating his back catalogue as another great American songbook.
Aping Kill Bill’s The Bride, Django (Jamie Foxx) is engaged in a rip-roaring rampage of revenge; as in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz presides over lengthy, richly theatrical sit-down conversations; and like Jackie Brown before him, Django discovers the biggest obstacle to an African-American getting ahead comes from Samuel L. Jackson.
This is auteurism in action from a director acutely aware of his own place in cinema history. Revealingly, though, DU marks a concerted attempt to add weight to the paradigm. The enfant terrible is now an elder statesman: maybe it’s time to mature?
So a larky, laconic first hour descends into a Jacobean theatre of cruelty as Django, freed from bondage by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), seeks to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It’s an audacious move tackling slavery in a down’n’dirty genre flick, but Tarantino’s schooling in exploitation cinema knows what a powerful classroom it can be.
This isn’t Driving Miss Daisy, cosily congratulating audience liberalism. Instead Quentin confronts the issue head-on, bolstering trademark provocation with a newfound depth of feeling.
The rage is palpable as Tarantino drops the irony for an agonisingly protracted bout of Mandingo boxing and a stark depiction of an escaped slave being fed to dogs.
That is, until the inevitable happens and QT goes crazy with the squibs and slow motion, toppling the earnestness in favour of crowd-pleasing wish-fulfillment.
This ought to be a flaw.
Yet as Tarantino’s second oscar for screenwriting confirmed, this isn’t a film about action but words.
Tarantino is fascinated by the gap between the slave – so under the yoke he is named by his masters – and the free man who can speak for himself.
Much of the story consists of Django expanding his vocabulary under Schultz’s tutelage; later, he delights in educating others in how to spell his name (although, as Franco Nero’s ironic cameo underlines, the name Django is itself second-hand).
Compare and contrast with Candie’s servant Stephen (Jackson), fed a lifetime of Confederate propaganda until he has become a malevolent advisor and keeper of the status quo.
Stephen is Tarantino’s masterstroke, a subversive exaggeration of the Uncle Tom stereotype and Jackson’s best role in years. The Academy seriously missed a trick by overlooking him.
Then again, maybe they were blinded by Waltz’s delectable scene-stealing. It’s no coincidence his bookish, erudite presence anchors the film, or that his nationality is a crucial plot point.
The foreigner, as the ultimate outsider, is the only person who can see the hypocrisy of Candie’s honeyed-but-hollow manners, beautifully captured in DiCaprio’s florid pantomime villain.
These subtexts breathe life into DU even as the man himself takes his precious time becoming a cowboy superhero.
For much of the film, despite Foxx’s steely charisma, Django is weirdly reactive, the plaything of those mighty supporting performances.
Yet Tarantino isn’t just telling one man’s story, but that of an entire world.
Like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Django’s journey takes him through a multitude of exaggerated, grotesque and tonally cavalier episodes (case in point: Don Johnson’s slapstick Ku Klux Klansmen) that skewer the era’s racism with such diversity that Tarantino never falls into Oscar-bait worthiness.
Ultimately, the film belongs not to Foxx, Jackson or even Waltz but the cavalcade of “was that really so-and-so?” cameos. (The actors’ identities are not confirmed until the film’s end.)
The credits roll like a reverse table of contents, suggesting that, while he has dispensed with chapter titles or shuffled chronology, Tarantino can’t help but think episodically.
Maybe there’s a glimmer of the DJ in him still.