Quentin Tarantino is back, and with the exception of his magnum opus, Pulp Fiction, he has never been this ferociously entertaining or exquisitely brilliant. Django Unchained is the best film of 2012. This is not a light statement; in an unusually impressive year, where we have seen Michael Haneke's clinical examination of old age and death in Amour, Paul Thomas Anderson's oblique study of identity, American culture and the nature of cult in The Master, Steven Spielberg's masterfully detailed purveyance of the political and moral questions around slavery and America in Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow's tour de force thriller on antiterrorism and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, and Ang Lee's magical work of art in Life of Pi, picking the 'best film' of the year sounds like a self-defeating exercise. While Ben Affleck's procedurally tight, but substantively empty hostage drama Argo took the awards season by storm, it is Quentin Tarantino's incendiary masterpiece that will be etched firmly in the memories of cinema lovers for years to come.
So, what is Django Unchained about? Set in 1858 in the antebellum South, a slave, Django, is freed by a German dentist bounty hunter by the name of Dr King Schultz, and goes on a blood-soaked rip-roaring rampage, first during the harsh wintertime, as a partner to Schultz in collecting cash for corpses, and then venturing deep into a large Mississippi Plantation by the name of 'Candyland' to find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda...Wait, what?
Providing a synopsis to any Tarantino film, whether it is Pulp Fiction (low-life LA gangsters talk about foot massages, the names of fast-food burgers in Europe, and engage in petty activities), Kill Bill (former member of an elite assassin group, is brutalised on her wedding day, she recovers and seeks bloody revenge, by killing dozens of people until she finally finds and kills Bill), Death Proof (stunt-driver finds girls and kills them by crashing his car), or Inglourious Basterds (American Jewish soldiers in Nazi Occupied France plan to kill many Nazis and bring down the Third Reich), is of little use. To analyse a QT film descriptively is misleading, because the man's films are so much more about 'plot'. To watch a Tarantino film, is to experience the work of a gargantuan aficionado of film history (often, obscure parts of it), and to feel a violent energy, an alchemy of pop culture and homage, an arresting concoction of images and sounds, and a gallery of characters that are irresistibly unforgettable and endlessly quotable. Tarantino is a cinematic Picasso armed with a shotgun instead of a paint brush (yes that is good thing).
In Django Unchained we are treated to some of the greatest characters in the QT canon. Django, a brave, unyieldingly determined slave wanting to reunite with his wife. Dr King Schultz, a man of myth and intrigue who is supposedly a dentist (but we never see him practice) who collects handsome rewards for killing outlaws, and supports Django in his quest to find his wife. This elegant man who kills people for money but despises the institution of slavery, a paradox, a man it seems, of reason and compassion, is Tarantino's point of reference for refracting the moral evil we witness at this place and time in history, and gives the film a powerful subtext. Two more key characters that are both fascinating and utterly repulsive allow Tarantino to push the film to a higher platform and ask us two general, but important questions about slavery. The first is Calvin Candie, a wealthy plantation owner, a Francophile who does not speak a single word of French, the paragon of white 'supremacy', a true Southern 'aristocrat'. This man is a beast; a repugnant, savage monster, who treats his fellow human beings as chattel, machines for generating wealth on the plantation fields and as objects of entertainment that fight to the death with each other for his pleasure. He lives and interacts with 'black faces' all his life, yet his moral superiority is justified by the 'science' of phrenology, which tells him that the African man and woman are submissive, simple, sub-human species. How can such a man exist? The second is Stephen, Candie's über-slave, his right hand man at 'Candyland' who takes care of business. This is the ultimate Uncle Tom, possibly the most despicable Negro in cinematic history. He is the freest slave in the South, and he relishes his power to the max. With Stephen, Tarantino introduces a great moral ambivalence to the 'white against black' equilibrium, and shows the abrogation of responsibility that some African-Americans evinced during that period. Is Stephen simply looking out for his self-interest? What can he do about slavery? This institution is probably going to be around forever, why pretend otherwise? Can we understand him? Would we do
Django Unchained has been criticised for its liberal use of the word 'nigger' (or the 'n-word' if you want to be a politically correct, upstanding citizen), and for trivialising the barbarism of slavery in America, by being a 'Spaghetti Western with Slaves'. The first objection is hard to understand - this is a film set in the Deep South in 1858, where it was customary to refer to African-Americans as niggers - admittedly, in the 21st Century, this is an ugly epithet, and it should make us uneasy (and I suspect that is part of the reason Tarantino does not tone down the language). The second objection is more understandable, but again, misconceived. The view seems to be that if you wish to tackle a serious and painful issue like slavery via the medium of film, you ought to adopt a sombre, historically faithful approach, and you cannot use such subject matter as the subtext for Western action and fantasy violence. That would hold true if the film trivialised a matter of fundamental historical importance, but Django Unchained does no such thing. Of course, it is an unashamedly entertaining film that pays tribute, inter alia, to the great Western pictures of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, but as noted above, the problem of slavery is played beautifully by the different characters who occupy every opposition on the moral spectrum, as well as a number of poignant scenes where the real pain and shame of the violence inflicted on slaves is shown (as opposed to the unreal 'movie violence'). The film is, in a word, morally sound.
As a piece of cinematic art, Django Unchained showcases a director-writer at the height of his powers, with a screenplay of such astounding quality that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the finest poetry ever committed to film (Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Annie Hall, Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, Pulp Fiction), and a host of performances that are simply astonishing (Waltz, DiCaprio, Jackson). The author of this masterwork, has, with his unorthodox and uncompromising vision earned his right to be named alongside the greatest artists in the annals of cinema. This is the apex of cinematic magic, and it is not to be missed at any cost.
"Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention."