The year is 1858, around about a couple of years before the American Civil War, and in the Southern states a group of slaves are being marched in chains across rough terrain. During one of the nights the two slavemasters leading them are confronted by one Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who claims to be a dentist - he is travelling in a dentist's wagon, certainly - and wishes to know if any of the slaves can help him. The slavemasters are sceptical and do not like the way he speaks to one who can assist, a man called Django (Jamie Foxx), which spells doom for them and a new life for Django...
After rewriting World War 2 with Inglourious Basterds, director and writer Quentin Tarantino sought to rewrite the antebellum United States of America, with specific interest in the international scandal of slavery, though in this case he did not fashion a story that was unhistorical more than it was an obvious fiction with a slavery setting. As it was, he didn't free the slaves himself, he freed just a few in the great scheme of things, yet that feeling of the tables being turned, the oppressors getting their much-needed comeuppance, was what fuelled the drama rather than the more familiar outrage about the political state of the South during the era depicted.
If anything, what Tarantino appeared to have been influenced by was not so much the Spaghetti Westerns of the sixties and seventies, in spite of that Django-referencing title and Franco Nero showing up to wink at posterity, but by a semi-obscure American Western of a few decades before called Skin Game, which starred James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr as a pair of friends in pre-Civil War times who scam ignorant whites by posing as master and slave. Once Schultz has explained that he is a bounty hunter who needs Django to identify three outlaws, they strike up a strong bond and become partners in scouring the land for lucrative jobs, all accomplished by execution - nobody gets taken alive by these two.
There is but one scene which questions the morality of such actions, speaking to more subtlety than you might have anticipated, but once that first act is over we have to deal with Django's main concern, which is getting his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) back from a flamboyant Leonardo DiCaprio's pretentious and hateful plantation owner. His first film apart, Tarantino's laddish favourite reputation has nevertheless provided strong female characters in the tradition of many a genre movie in a way the mainstream often paid mere lip service to, but with this one he played down the women, with only Washington making up a substantial part of the plot, and then as more of a quivering trophy for the hero to win back, which was perhaps surprising but arguably in keeping with the boys' club of Westerns.
More notable than that was the overall tone which merely by dint of its setting could have been even more subversive than his previous hit in that Tarantino seemed to be adopting the role of the kid who shouted out to draw attention to The Emperor's New Clothes, only in this case it was the Emperor's old clothes he was pointing out. There was a needling quality to his insistence on pointing out what too many Westerns, the obvious example of Blazing Saddles aside, did not: the country they were set in could be massively racist, and the makeup on Don Johnson to have him resemble a certain fried chicken restaurant icon and the formidable, pointedly troubling Samuel L. Jackson as a domestically sold rice logo meant there was a more political edge to his work. In its wiseacre manner, this suited him, and created a depth to what could have been his usual list of references and favourite actors appearing. If it was a tad too stretched out to generate the required tension when a snappier edit might have given it more punch, an almost shyly developed point about acting and pretending as a way of getting to the truth was another string to its bow.
American writer/director and one of the most iconic filmmakers of the 1990s. The former video store clerk made his debut in 1992 with the dazzling crime thriller Reservoir Dogs, which mixed razor sharp dialogue, powerhouse acting and brutal violence in controversial style. Sprawling black comedy thriller Pulp Fiction was one of 1994's biggest hits and resurrected John Travolta's career, much as 1997's Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown did for Pam Grier.