Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson, Ato Essandoh
Django Unchained may not be Quentin Tarantino’s best film, but does seem to be the film that comes closest to fulfilling his vision for what he wanted it to be. He wanted to make a big-budget, hyper-violent, A-list, American spaghetti western antebellum slave revenge thriller. Django Unchained is such a perfect realization of that goal that I doubt anyone will ever attempt to do the exact same thing ever again.
Also, it’s a film that admirably self-selects its audience. If you think you’ll like it, you’ll probably really, really like it. If you think you’ll hate it, you’ll probably really, really hate it. It’s not a film for the faint of heart, or those with a low threshold for movie brutality.
If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know the basic setup: German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him track down three brothers he can identify, then makes him his partner in the bounty hunting business. A bit later, they go to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DeCaprio). Stylish gunplay and general brutality ensues.
Like all Tarantino’s movies, there are postmodern nods and namechecks to previous films, including recycling the theme music from 1966’s Django for the opening titles. Unlike his previous films, Tarantino has done a better job sanding off the rough edges and toning down his showier stylistic flourishes. They’re still here, but seem like a more natural fit for the material, be it a slow motion montage as a procession rides past, or solarized flashbacks to Django’s slave past. Likewise, the digressions seem more organic to the film (a scene of proto-Klansmen bitching about the poor quality of eyeholes in their hoods is funny enough that you’re willing to overlook its shaggy nature).
The script is clever and fairly taut for its 165 minute running time, and it doesn’t have the dead spots of (for example) Inglorious Basterds. There are two or three plot twists, some more improbable than others. Django’s wife is named Broomhilda and speaks German (because her original owner was German), which not only makes Waltz perfect for the role Tarantino obviously wrote for him, but actually provides three or four handy plot points in a nice, tidy package. They have a clever plan to rescue Broomhilda. It comes really, really close to succeeding.
Acting ranges from the solid, to really good, to downright excellent. Bruce Dern and Don Johnson are just fine in supporting roles. Jammie Foxx is fine in what amounts to a Shaft Kicks Dixie’s Ass role, though suffers in comparison to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Waltz is very effective in his hand-crafted role of a learned, articulate man who hates slavery and kills people for money, though it’s less of a revelation than his Oscar-winning turn as Hans Landa. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to play a villain worthy of his simmering rage.
But for me the best performance is the movie is DiCaprio’s Candie, a plantation owner whose southern hospitality doesn’t prevent him letting a runaway slave get ripped apart by dogs, and his fury at finding himself being played is something to behold. The trailer suggested he might be playing it to broad and jokey, but his actual performance is very nuanced. DiCaprio has steadily improved as an actor, and of what I’ve seen him in, this is easily his best work.
Of course, some of the usual suspects have gotten their knickers in a twist over an American spaghetti western depicting the evils of slavery. What do they want, to soft peddle the crimes of slavery instead? And those criticizing the film for being brutal and violent: Have you not seen a Tarantino film before? It’s like someone complaining that the Seventh Season of South Park is full of potentially offensive humor. Really? You don’t say?
As previously noted, those with a low threshold for bloodshed and brutality should stay far, far away. As Dwight noted after we left the theater, “I hope they gave the squib guy a bonus.” But if you like Tarantino, here he’s pretty much at the top of his game.
And if I had known that the action figures would be discontinued, I would have picked some up.