Review: Django Unchained a lesson in brutality


(MA, 166 minutes.) Opens Thursday.

Never shy of stirring up a storm of controversy and debate, Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed spaghetti western pastiche finally arrives Down Under, with its guns a-blazin' and, for Australian audiences, a clutch of local cameos in tow.

As with his 1997 film Jackie Brown, Tarantino has already faced down detractors from the black community, who have proved more vocal than ever in their outright dismay of the film geek's seemingly mischievous ways. A typically vocal Spike Lee refused to see the film, declaring, ''Slavery was not a spaghetti western''. For those sensitive to the N-word (it rhymes with ''digger'', as one pundit helpfully pointed out), its overly liberal, period-era usage may alarm, but it pales in comparison with the horrors of the time, of which we are offered a significant glimpse.

And so, proudly doffing its cap to Sergios Corbucci and Leone, this latest, sprawling exercise in film lore dares to tread where most other white American filmmakers would not (and fewer American schools do, either).

It is 1858, with the black hero's journey proving so bloody and brutal that he might just walk free, if he can take down his oppressors along the way. If Spike Lee were to view the film, his protestations would surely grow mute.

In narrative terms, the extended first act pans out like a classically tinged western, with comedic flourishes to hand. We meet an eloquent, dandy German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz in a role specifically tailored for him (after his Oscar-winning turn in Tarantino's WWII Holocaust farce, Inglourious Basterds). He's driving a mysterious carriage with a giant molar on top. Swiftly, he purchases Django (Jamie Foxx, in a role apparently first pitched to Will Smith), leaving the rest of the black chain gang to wreak vengeance on their white masters (James Russo and James Remar).

Django accompanies Schultz in the pursuit of the Brittle Brothers, becoming a bounty hunter in the process. Yet Django is largely concerned with reuniting with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who's working for the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his most depraved role yet). No one, it seems, will get out alive.

Those with sensitive stomachs should be warned: the violence here is graphic (and, one imagines, not so far removed from historical fact). The body count rises rapidly as the final lap eventually draws near.

Yet for every gruesome sequence, there's an amusing cameo (Franco Nero, Don Johnson, even Jonah Hill) to offset it. This is comic-book gore, after all. Tarantino also pointedly and gleefully sends up the Ku Klux Klan as buffoons, in a Python-esque Blazing Saddles kind of way.

What makes the film difficult to watch is its central theme: the pre-Civil War brutality shown towards African-Americans, with slavery still some years off being abolished by Lincoln.

One can't help but wonder what would happen if an Australian filmmaker dared to do likewise with our country's dark past. Just how would the nation react?

Equally, it's refreshing to consider that Tarantino - who offers a hilariously awful cameo of his own, complete with Aussie drawl - is growing ever bolder as he grows older. He will soon turn 50 yet shows no sign of cruising into middle age. Indeed, as his budgets have grown, so has the man's audacity. One only wonders how he can possibly top this stark reminder of his nation's past, a past that Samuel L. Jackson (who shines in Django as an elderly and deplorable figure) has branded as being ''whitewashed'' and ''perfumed'' in the mainstream arena. Tarantino, Jackson says, has got it just right.

Lest we forget, of course, we are back in classic Tarantino territory here. There are fond nods everywhere, from John Ford-esque vistas to Corbucci-like close-ups. There's a typically eclectic soundtrack that stands both alone and alongside its master. And evidently, the man adores spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films in equal measure (effectively mashing up the two here). The dialogue could have been trimmed - the first act seems to last an eternity - and yet, curiously, its near three-hour running time feels strangely warranted for such a piece.

Furthermore, Tarantino's detractors appear to have been proven wrong, in the black fraternity at least. The film's recent $US100 million ($95 million) haul at the US box office has been largely led by a black audience: one that has welcomed the filmmaker's take on such matters. As for the issue of violence on and off screen? Well, that's another matter altogether.

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Di Caprio in Django Unchained.

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Di Caprio in Django Unchained.


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