Considering how often he has spoken of his love for westerns it’s a surprise Tarantino has waited so long to put his own spin on things. But then the master of violence has always taken delight in following his own rules and he more than makes up for lost time in this wildly entertaining and visually striking story about racial identity, unlikely friendship and yep, violent revenge. Nobody does stylish death scenes quite like Quentin.
And he sure knows about entrances too. Beginning with a scene of slaves being transported like convicted cattle, dentist Dr King Shulz (played by the magnificent Christoph Waltz) quietly arrives in an assuming little mobile cabin that even has a quirky swinging tooth on top. Inquiring about Django (Jamie Foxx), one of the slaves, Django, he meets resistance by their ignorant owners, the hapless Speck brothers. It’s not long before the fun begins and the polite and well spoken Schulz shows his combat skills and quick reflexes to get control of the situation and killing one of the owners. Turns out Schulz hasn’t practiced dentistry in years and this softly spoken German is perfectly happy to let the now freed slow avenge themselves by executing the remaining brother.
Schulz has more pressing concerns and needs Django’s help to hunt down the Brittle brothers and kill them. It’s not long before the bounty hunter Schulz and the determined Django bond. There is a touching scene where they open up and share a beer but Tarantino veers away from being sentimental by reminding everyone of the overt racism and the shooting dead of a bureaucratic official.
The death of the Speck brothers is less of interest to Tarantino than showing the bigoted negro haters getting their just desserts. The film’s arguably best and certainly funniest scene is the parody of the white sheet and hat group (led by Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, played with flair by Don Johnson) which gloriously mocks the simple-minded sheep-following mentality. The KKK may have formed after the film’s setting of 1858, but the creative license works a treat. And It’s been ages since anyone looked as good in a blue suit as the one Django chooses for himself.
From there the film gets more serious. Schulz decides to train Django to become his partner in crime and giving him a cut of the profits, before he agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She is being forced to work in the Candyland plantation, run by the deviously charismatic Calvin Candie (an impressively acted Leonardo DiCaprio, complete with a neat Southern accent). Not wishing to be overpriced they decide to come up in advance with a cunning plan of being interested in his fighting slaves, but run into trouble as they face opposition from Candle’s fiercely loyal senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson).
Released around the same time as Lincoln, Tarantino’s films never shurks the brutal, ugly racism endemic there at that time. While Spielberg’s biography of the final few months of the celebrated president focused on the moral and legal aspects of fighting slavery, Tarantino highlights just how terrifying being black those days was. The scene where a wounded slave gets caught trying to escape and is punished by being torn apart by a pack of wolves is startling. Even though we don’t see the actual mauling, the sound of tortured screams is harrowing enough. Whilst there are plenty of moments for fans of Tarantino’s bloodbath shootout killings (and look out for one blown away into the next room!), Tarantino has made a film about a point in American history that in his own style and very much blue, white, and all kinds of blood red.