Brash, stylish, shocking, often hilarious, there is no mistaking “Django Unchained” as anything other than a new Tarantino film, although it does feel notably different if only in a subtle way.
Tarantino has always been a remarkably confident (some might say arrogant) director. You don’t make a searing debut like “Reservoir Dogs” if you aren’t wholly confident in what you can bring to the screen. But “Django Unchained” feels like it has an extra layer of confidence slathered on it, like Tarantino is just sort of strutting around, fully in control of his craft and certain that what he’s putting on the screen is pure gold.
Is that arrogant? Maybe. But it’s earned, at the very least, because “Django Unchained” is undoubtedly the work of a filmmaker working at the height of his powers, cranking out a film that is almost preposterously entertaining.
Like “Inglourious Basterds” before it, “Django Unchained” is a revenge fantasy. But instead of Jews getting a chance to give Hitler a face full of lead, it’s a slave having the chance to kill white slavers as a bounty hunter. In the words of Django (Jamie Foxx) when asked if he enjoys his newfound vocation he replies, “Kill white folks and they pay you for it. What’s not to like?”
Getting him into said profession is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He’s looking for a trio of brothers and knows that only Django can lead him to them.
Following a surprisingly hilarious (and unsurprisingly bloody) encounter with Django’s captors, the duo are off to track down the Brittle Brothers, with promises of Django’s freedom following their successful takedown of the bounty. However, once Schultz learns of Django’s desire to track down the wife he was separated from, Schultz promises to do what he can to help reunite the two.
The plot is surprisingly thin, all things considered, but you’ll hardly notice because this is such a rich movie in pretty much every other capacity. It’s shot gorgeously (Tarantino and his frequent cinematographer, Robert Richardson, clearly have fountains of affection for the way ’70s westerns were shot), the score is just as eclectic (and often off-the-wall) as you’d expect from a Tarantino joint and the tone is perfectly balanced, managing to bounce from being disturbing to intense to outright hilarious with ease.
However, the real treat of the film comes from where Tarantino always shines brightest: Dialogue and character.
By far the best part of the film is any time Schultz and Django are interacting with each other. They make a tremendous team and I’d have been happy if the entire film was nothing but the two of them wandering the dusty South, taking down bounties as they will.
Foxx, by contrast, has a much more understated role to play. In the hands of a lesser actor, the part might have felt woefully underwritten, but Tarantino elicits a wonderfully intense performance out of him, allowing Foxx to deliver so much information and emotion just through his intense glares. It’s as strong a performance as I’ve seen from him. I was worried Foxx might feel out of place in the role. He has a look that simply feels “modern” in a way that could have been distracting in a period setting such as this, but Foxx fills Django’s boots quite capably.
Rounding out the primary cast is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, the somewhat aloof yet still menacing owner of Candieland, the plantation where Django’s wife can be found. Running the plantation behind the scenes is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin’s house negro. While Calvin is evil enough on his own (just wait for the scene involving a human skull and a hammer), it’s Stephen who comes across as the most dangerous. Together, though DiCaprio and Jackson make a wicked team with DiCaprio delivering some of the most unhinged acting of his career while Jackson provides a nice reminder that he actually can act.
As with many of Tarantino’s films, this one has sparked controversy. Some (including the notoriously outspoken Spike Lee) have decried the film as being too flippant with its subject matter, that doing something as brash as release a slave revenge fantasy is simply beyond the pale. While it’s certainly a bold move making these sorts of fantasy films (and make no mistake, this is pure fantasy, just as “Inglourious Basterds” was), Tarantino’s approach is hardly what I would call callous or insensitive.
On the contrary, he actually goes out of his way to depict just how brutally mistreated slaves were by their white owners. We’re shown slaves’ deep scars from repeated whippings and perpetual shackles. Runaways are branded by hot irons while others get ripped asunder by dogs. We see the medieval accoutrements adorning their heads and necks. It’s brutal, often harrowing stuff and Tarantino never makes it feel exploitive or cheap.
Instead it does a proper job of helping us to understand the rage and passion that fuel’s Django’s quest.
That rage is exhumed and exorcised in the film’s action scenes. When Django is let loose and draws his pistol, it’s righteous anger aimed squarely at the forehead of southern fried evil. But these aren’t just stylish bits of gunplay, these are explosions of violence that burst from the screen with an impact and brutality that has to be seen to be believed. Each gunshot is like a small cannon being fired with a resultant explosion of blood. This has to be the wettest film I’ve seen in years. Squibs don’t just burst and release fake blood, they erupt. These aren’t spurts, these are waves of blood, as though Tarantino is aiming to stick it to every filmmaker who refuses to use anything other than digital fakery for cinematic blood.
What it comes down to is this: “Django Unchained” is pure cinema. Yes, Tarantino is still doing his “usual schtick” of acting as a sort of cinematic DJ, combining and mixing familiar tropes and elements. But the end product is a work of art that still stands as wholly his own. This is electric, brutal filmmaking that reverberates with the joy of making movies. Tarantino never pretends for a second that this is anything other than a movie that we’re watching and the experience is all the richer for it.