Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Rated MA, 165 minutes
Reviewer's rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars
Django Unchained may be Quentin Tarantino's most violent film yet, and his most meaningful. The first is hard to gauge because there is a lot of violence to choose from. The second is easier because it is only recently his films have conceded that deeper meaning was even necessary.
Tarantino has always had an extraordinary feel for the kinetic and visceral nature of film, and a brilliant ear for dialogue; he has always had a great instinct for where the pressure points lay in his culture, hence his use of the term ''nigger''. He was always more than a genre filmmaker, even if genre was his first love.
Blood brothers ... Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) are unlikely allies. Photo: Andrew Cooper
His love of movies meant he was more engaged by the craft, and the joyful iconoclasm of going too far. He was always the naughtiest of his generation, and the idea of a profound story seemed to embarrass him. He was afflicted by the curse of the cool, the fear of substance that comes with being young, smart and full of irony. That has changed in the past two movies. Inglourious Basterds was an enormous leap in theme, dramatic ambition and character. He maintained the iconoclasm and the violence, but nailed it to something solid, the question of a Jewish response to the violence of the Nazis. It was a fantasy, an alternative history, but it dramatised a serious question.
Django Unchained borrows from a 1966 spaghetti western, Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, but what Tarantino does with the idea is profound. This is the most nuanced and chilling film about slavery I have seen. It is unbearably awful in a few scenes, and no one should underestimate the violence, but what should a film about slavery be like? Most US films soft-soap the truth about slavery because it is like the Holocaust - literally unwatchable. This one tears it apart, exposing the depth of the depravity. In a country where the stain of slavery is barely discussed, especially in the south, that took courage.
In many of Tarantino's early films, the violence was vicious but barely real. Here it begins as movie violence, a spectacle for enjoyment, with gouts of blood spurting into the air as the German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (played superbly by Christoph Waltz) carries on his trade in court-approved murder. He frees Django (Jamie Foxx, in another great role), from a line of wretched slaves chained at the neck, on a winter's night in Texas just before the Civil War. Django knows the faces of three men Schultz wishes to kill, for money. The two white slave traders who refuse to sell Django die horribly, but with that sense of vengeful fun that Tarantino loves. This is movie justice, where bad men meet bad ends.
There is so much humour early in the film it feels almost light-headed. Dr Schultz recognises a talent for bounty-hunting in his new charge. He hates slavery, he tells Django, and they might be able to help each other. The black man is dumbfounded: you mean I get paid for killing white folks?
After the pair have spent the winter killing bandits, their friendship has become profound, and so has their quest. Django must rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the richest and most feared plantation owner in Mississippi. And Dr Schultz must aid that quest because a German must respect a real-life ''young Siegfried''. Here the violence becomes what it is: ugly, disturbing and brutal, like slavery.
DiCaprio's character is the most loathsome Tarantino has yet produced: a dandy with a heart as black as pitch and brown teeth to match. Candie runs Candyland, where his strongest slaves fight each other to the death for his amusement. The fact there is no record of this in American slavery is moot: it occurs in other movies, from which QT takes his cue. Samuel L. Jackson gives a fine performance as Stephen, the senior ''house nigger'' at Candyland, a man so ruined by privilege he has become Candie's loyal retainer.
This is the first movie in which Tarantino's frequent use of the word ''nigger'' is accurate and necessary, but that hasn't stopped the film being attacked by some on the US right, by some African-American writers and by filmmaker Spike Lee, who says he won't see it out of respect for what his ancestors endured.
Some African-Americans say white directors should not make films about ''black subjects''. But that would mean Lee could not make films about ''white subjects'' or ''Italian subjects'' - there goes Do the Right Thing. Ridiculous, obviously, but indicative of the level of pain still around slavery.
Django Unchained will polarise opinion, but I think it is an extraordinary achievement - as disturbing as it is audacious, as brutal as it is beautiful. It's another alternative history, a fantasy. Would that it were not based on so much awful truth.