Django Unchained, the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is a revisionist 'spaghetti western' revenge fantasy set in America's antebellum south. Its central character, played by Jamie Foxx, was appropriated from the spaghetti western Django; the title is a combination of Django and Herculese Unchained, another 1960s Italian exploitation film. As usual, Tarantino has assembled an impressive cast, which this time includes Christoph Waltz, Leonard DiCaprio, and Samuel L Jackson.
Tarantino's first film without editor Sally Menkes (who died in 2010), Django Unchained is his longest film to date, a western on an epic scale. It's also his most classically linear narrative. There are landscapes worthy of John Ford; in fact, the search for Django's captured wife parallels the quest for Natalie in Ford's The Searchers.
Quick zooms and close-ups on eyes show the influence of Sergio Leone, and there are numerous references to Leone's westerns, including music from Ennio Morricone. Django emerges from the smoke after a dynamite explosion like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful Of Dollars, and the insult "son of a..." is interrupted before its final word in a reference to The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.
The film is also self-referential, of course: there's a tense countdown from ten to one, as in Pulp Fiction, and the "tasty beverage" from Pulp Fiction and Death Proof is slightly modified to "tasty refreshment". Tarantino has an indulgent cameo, with an awful Australian accent. (His cameo in Sukiyaki Western Django, also inspired by spaghetti westerns and Django, was even worse.)
Samuel L Jackson, who plays the old house slave Stephen, has appeared in most of Tarantino's previous films: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill II, and Inglourious Basterds. It's that last film that Django Unchained most resembles: both are revenge fantasies (as are Kill Bill and Death Proof), both contain spaghetti western elements, and both present revisionist interpretations of major historical atrocities, combining dramatic licence with ironic exploitation.
Django is a slave freed by Christoph Waltz's bounty hunter, Schultz. Waltz (who also starred in Carnage) played a 'Jew hunter' in Inglourious Basterds, and his characters in both films are eloquent, charming polyglots: Schultz speaks English and German, with a few lines of French. Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception/Shutter Island/The Departed/The Aviator) is also excellent in his first bad-guy role, surprisingly menacing as Candie the plantation owner. The plantation, Candyland, is a counterpoint to the romanticised Tara in Gone With The Wind; Tarantino even uses scrolling text in the same style as that Civil War classic.
The performances, direction, and widescreen cinematography are outstanding, though the plot doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Django and Schultz "get into character" (another line from Pulp Fiction) and pose as mandingo dealers to trick Candy into selling them Django's wife, one of Candyland's slaves. (Her name is von Shaft, a reference to Blaxploitation hero John Shaft.) Their scheme increases the film's tension, and produces some terrific set-pieces, though ultimately the elaborate deception was un-necessary: they would have achieved the same result by simply telling Candy the truth from the outset.
Django Unchained is shockingly violent: slaves are tortured and torn apart by dogs, as justification for the bloody revenge of the final massacre. The film has also been criticised for its language: the word 'nigger' is used more than 100 times. (Tarantino also used it, with less frequency, in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.)
Incidentally, Django Unchained was filmed in 35mm. Tarantino - along with Christopher Nolan (who filmed The Dark Knight Rises in 70mm IMAX) and Paul Thomas Anderson (who filmed The Master in 70mm) - is one of the few contemporary directors who remain committed to celluloid filming and exhibition.