Being that I’m not a fan of westerns, be it of the standard or spaghetti variety, I am always hesitant to see a new one when released unless it has something new to offer. Sure I love Tombstone, The Quick and the Dead and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, but it’s a rare event when I’ll actually rush out to see one. Django Unchained is one that I’ve been anxiously awaiting mainly because I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan and I always look forward to his films. Even though this is being called a “Southern”, it’s still a spaghetti western at heart, going as far as to include Franco Nero in the cast.
Taking place two years before the Civil War in the deep South, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter, frees Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave that has seen the faces of three men he’s hunting down. They form a partnership and once Django tells Schultz that he wants to track down his wife, a slave named Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), they embark on a journey to rescue her from the clutches of the infamous plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
We all know that Tarantino has a knack for amazing dialogue, entertaining characters and gruesome violence. He goes for broke here and adds in an element that he has only sparsely used in the past… comedy. One would think that a movie that involves such dark subject matter as slavery and racism would be dead serious, but Tarantino turns that conceit on its ear by creating some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a movie this year. For instance, there’s a scene involving a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob that is planning on killing the heroes, but before they do they have a meeting where most of them complain about how they cannot see out of the eye holes in their hoods and it just keeps escalating into ridiculous territory, with one guy paraphrasing South Park’s Eric Cartman by yelling “Fuck you all, I’m going home!” I nearly died form laughing. There are more hysterical scenes that come out of nowhere like this that I won’t ruin here, but trust me, it’s a brave choice on Tarantino’s part to go this route with this material and he pulls it off in style.
Tarantino’s writing here is as confident as ever. The characters are all interesting and the situations they find themselves in are as effed up as always. The plot is simple and there is no timeline shifting like he’s done in his previous films. I’d say that this is his first truly straightforward film, and other than him commenting on the evils of slavery there is nothing going on under the surface. He made a movie to genuinely entertain his audience that just so happens to take place during a dark time in history. Although I do have to admit that I’m getting tired of his movies being about revenge.
The acting. Where to begin? Christoph Waltz owns this movie whenever he’s on screen. He seems so relaxed in his craft that it takes no effort to slip into the skin of a character, and I never once saw him as anyone other than Dr. King Schultz. He’s now one of my favorite actors. He shares an amazing chemistry with Jamie Foxx as Django. They form a father/son sort of bond that I totally bought, and when Django begins to talk about wanting to rescue his wife I knew that his character would feel honor bound to lend an assist. If there was just one reason to see this movie, he’s the one.
Jamie Foxx is a mixed bag. I’ve never really been a fan of his cocky shtick and I think a lot of his dramatic work is overrated. However, when he’s sharing a scene with Waltz there is an energy that I don’t think I’ve seen from him before. This energy is lacking whenever the two of them are apart and he seems to fall back on his comedic side to compensate. He does seem to be trying his damnedest to pull off his character and I give him points for trying. Maybe Tarantino should have fought harder to convince Will Smith to take the part. Foxx is good, but he could have been better.
The main villain part of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, goes to further prove how far this dude has come since Titanic. There’s something fascinating about watching an actor who is known for playing mainly good guys switch over to play truly despicable character. But he plays this character as much more than a one-note baddie. He’s a suave, somewhat likable Southern gentleman who doesn’t see anything wrong with promoting mandingo fighting, throwing his servants into hot boxes or even having his dogs rip slaves apart on his property. He certainly plays his character’s dark side with a sort of childish glee which I thought made him all the more interesting than the average baddie. The fact that his character, who so obviously has no problems with treating people as property, would so readily accept Django as a free man and an equal was even more intriguing. When the time came for him to go into full on asshole mode it came as a sort of a shock, and he pulls it off with aplomb.
But the big surprise is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s head house slave. His character is even more contemptible than his master due to his complete acceptance of slavery as a preferred way of life and his innate willingness to turn against his own people to preserve it. In many ways he’s the film’s main villain since he proves to be more of a threat to the heroes than Candie for the most part due to his noticing how Django and Broomhilda act around each other and how he manipulates his will upon his master, who is actually nothing more than a loudmouthed ignorant dunce. Jackson goes all out in the part, and even when the character attempts to be funny his words are laced with venom. He is so unlikable that he makes his master seem like a playful child in comparison. I haven’t seen Jackson throw himself into a part like this in a long while, and while his character is a complete “muthafucka” I just couldn’t take my eyes off him.
The movie is just shy of three hours, but never feels that long. The plot moves along at a brisk pace and even the standard Tarantino dialogue scenes are constantly moving the story forward. I was never once bored. I was consistently entertained by what Tarantino was throwing at me, be it some overly gory shootout (cartoon violence is this movie’s bread and butter), a perfectly chosen song to play over a scene, some off-the-wall humor or some long forgotten actor taking a clever cameo role for no other reason than to work with this truly gifted writer/director.
My only complaints are minor. Why put someone like Zoë Bell in your movie if you’re going to give her absolutely nothing to do? The Candie resolution was slightly anticlimactic and Tarantino’s bit part as an Australian slaver was overly distracting. Other than that it was all good in my book.
This is the second part in what is being called Tarantino’s “Revisionist History Trilogy”, Inglourious Basterds being the first and his proposed African American WWII battalion revenge story (tentatively titled) Killer Crow being the third. The first two parts are winners, and I hope the third part continues that tradition. All I know is that after watching this movie I have the need to track down and watch the original Django films from the 70s. I just hope they’re as good as this current version, which I’m considering one of my Top 5 Films of the Year. It’s an amazingly fun and entertaining film filled with awesome characters, witty dialogue and sublime acting (for the most part). Don’t let the time period the story is set in turn you away, it’s a fantastic film. I just hope that you have a high tolerance for hearing the “N Word”. It’s said probably 15 times per minute which can be a bit much for anyone to handle.
4.5 out of 5