The next Quentin Tarantino movie is always something to get thrilled about and “Django Unchained” isn’t looking to be an exception to that distinct rule.
Quentin Tarantino is without question one of the biggest filmmaker of the modern day. Over Two decades he has helped reinvent the crime genre, thrown conventional structure out the window, and developed characters and shepherded performances that will never be overlooked.
“Django Unchained,” Tarantino's deliriously kicky and shameless racial-exploitation epic, is set in the slave days, and among other things, it's a low-down orgy of flamboyant harshness and violence: whippings, a scene in which a man gets torn apart by dogs, plus the most promiscuous use of the N-word ever heard in a mainstream movie. Set in the antebellum South, the story follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is taken under the wing of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter out to get the aggresive Brittle brothers.
What's interesting about Django - at least, when it is fun - is that it's also a liberal-hearted revenge Western, with a stoically commanding Jamie Foxx in the part of Django, a slave who is bought and freed by Dr. King Schultz, an abolitionist bounty hunter. He desires Django to help him locate and hunt down a handful of the slave's former overseers. Waltz, speaking in his German-from-Neptune accent, and in cadences so literate they're a little loopy, plays Schultz as a charming benevolent oddball and he and Foxx, with that smoky and knowing killer gaze, make an irresistible buddy team.
In 1859, German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help find some slave traders Django knows. When he shows a talent for the job and proves himself a great shot, he and Schultz become partners and close friends. Schultz learns Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is owned by vicious plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose favorite entertainment is “Mandingo fighting” - watching slaves fight to the death for sport.
Schultz, whose hatred of slavery extends to the vile people who propagate it, knows Candie won’t sell Broomhilda. So he and Django enter Candie’s Mississippi estate posing as callous Mandingo traders, with Broomhilda’s freedom their most significant goal. Yet in typical Tarantino style, things go blood-red wrong before a gray victory is achieved in this pre-Civil War South.
As opposed to “Basterds“, which takes gleeful joy in rewriting history, it’s basically an authentic approach to the antebellum South that makes Django such a powerful and, in an unusual way, cathartic work. Tarantino holds back nothing - as he’s wont to do - in his characterization of slavery’s cruelty, unabashedly showing unspeakable acts like brandings, whippings, beatings and even dog attacks. But it’s anything but gratuitous.
“Django Unchained” cast keeps the eye on this meta-approach, but goes beyond it. Foxx is marvelous in a role requiring brawn, brains, dignity and humor. The great Waltz, wearing a Texas-sized facial hair, wryly rolls his accent around Tarantino’s dialogue as if he were savoring a strudel.
DiCaprio is just as strong as a dandified fiend whose repugnant traits include a childish enthusiasm for evil. Samuel L. Jackson has an even more audacious role: Candie’s butler-confidante, who listens as his boss holds a dead slave’s skull and spouts nonsense about mental capacity, then sips brandy with him, complicit in the inhumanity.
As with any Tarantino production, though, it's his words that are the real stars here. There are lots of instantly quotable lines and funny bits. “Django Unchained” is designed as a crowd-pleaser and it undoubtedly delivers on that promise, offering up lots of moments of over-the-top gunslinger violence and humor. One of the most impressive things about the plot, though, is how well Tarantino balances the tone, veering between ridiculous comedy and brutal scenes of life for slaves in the antebellum South.
My barely real gripe with the film is its length. It runs 160 minutes, but drags a bit near the end of the second act, particularly after a shootout that would have been the climax of any other western. However, Tarantino uses many of his best tools for “Django Unchained”, and while they do the job well for the most part they are simply not as sharp this time out. But even as one of his lagging efforts, “Django Unchained” still ranks higher than most of what comes out over the course of a year. It is a tribute to the spaghetti Western, cooked al dente, then cooked a while more, and ultimately sauced to death.
Jane Doe writes from the American South East.
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