There are few filmmakers you can count on for a unique vision at the cinema these days. As a result, I sometimes have a hard time preparing myself when such an occasion occurs, and while you can never quite prepare for a Quentin Tarantino movie, there are aspects of Django Unchained that certainly caught me off guard.
Is it good? Yes! Is it great? Yes! Is it funny? Yes! Is it violent? Terrifyingly so.
Not since Michael Madsen sliced off a police officer’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, and poured gasoline on the open wound, have I felt such an emotional response to violence in a Tarantino film. Torturing Nazis in Inglourious Bastereds is one thing, but watching two slaves battle to the death and the canine torture of another is tough to sit through. Tarantino’s films are known for their gratuitous violence, and there is no lack of gratuitous violence in Django Unchained, but Tarantino also knows the line between gratuitous and unsettling and he walks it with unblinking confidence, making Django his most mature piece to date as well as one of the most rewarding.
Slavery is a stain on America’s history and Tarantino does his best to show it for what it was while setting up his tale of romance and revenge. At the center of it all are two men. Beginning in 1858, we meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born bounty hunter posing as a dentist in a ridiculous horse-drawn carriage with a giant tooth swaying from its roof on a massive spring.
Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers and in need of some assistance. In the wilds of Texas, he’s managed to track down some slave traders in possession of one particular slave that will serve as his guide after a bit of a bloody parlay.
The slave’s name is Django (Jamie Foxx) and his eyes glisten at the prospect of hunting down the three men that whipped his wife Hildi (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated years ago by a former slave master (a briefly seen Bruce Dern). Schultz offers Django his freedom in exchange for his help and though he abhors slavery, Schultz admits he’ll use “this slave malarkey” to his benefit for the time being, though he does say, “I feel guilty.”
The promise of freedom and retrieving his wife from the clutches of the truly abhorrent slaveholder Calvin Candie (played with disgusting verve and menace by Leonardo DiCaprio) guides Django, who serves alongside Schultz throughout the winter before the German helps him find his wife.
Their journey begins in Greenville, Miss., the town where Django and Hildi were sold separately. From there it’s hammers, hot boxes, guns, bullets, guns, violence and blood, blood and more blood. If there was ever a case to be made for the visceral impact of practical effects over CG blood splatter let Django Unchained rest the case.
Django is a revenge-cum-romance tale born of the Spaghetti Westerns Tarantino clearly knows so well and titled based on the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film starring Franco Nero who makes a brief appearance here in one of the film’s several homages.
As much as Tarantino is paying homage to the Spaghetti Western and using his unique brand of storytelling to introduce a modern audience to the films he ate up when he was younger, Django does something none of his films have ever done; it takes a grim look at America’s history and the picture it paints isn’t pretty.
DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is a disgusting man, trading in slaves to fight for his amusement, carrying a hammer with him in case one should be determined the loser. At Candie’s side is his house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) whose character approaches his own level of loathsome. Stephen’s means of survival and appeasing his “master” means the punishment and castigation of the slaves and Mandingo fighters around him. For as much as Tarantino’s villains have become characters we love to hate, the villains in Django you are meant to hate, and hate them you will as both DiCaprio and Jackson do their absolute best to ensure such a result.
Waltz, on the other hand, after creating a villain in Inglourious Basterds that was hard to hate, he brings a similarly soft, yet ruthless, persona to Schultz, only here his sentimentality is saved for the righteous and his scorn for the abominable. Waltz seems as if he was born to read Tarantino’s lines and just as he so easily made his home in Tarantino’s Inglourious narrative, he never misses a beat here.
Foxx is solid in his performance, serving as the hardened heart you root for throughout and the proud owner of the film’s more gratuitous moments of violence that will cause you to cheer rather than cringe.
Other noteworthy performances are turned in by Don Johnson as Big Daddy, a wealthy plantation owner that eventually leads a comical raid on Schultz and Django; Tarantino himself can be found twice in the film, once he’s easy to spot the other maybe not so much and Walton Goggins deserves a shout out as Billy Crash, a character you will love to hate and one that just can’t quite understand the “D” in Django is silent.
As with all Tarantino films the soundtrack is notable, which includes two great new tracks by Rick Ross and John Legend, plus new music from Ennio Morricone. The cinematography from Robert Richardson is rich, gritty and slathered in blood and Sharen Davis‘ costumes are as fun as they are appropriate.
Overall, I’m an unashamed Tarantino fan. I love his ability to mix classic genres in cinema and revive them for a modern audience. His dialogue is endlessly entertaining and once again he taps into that special something that makes his films stand out from the rest. Django Unchained has everything you’d expect from a Tarantino film along with a mature recognition that some violence isn’t meant to be entertaining, which is what makes the rest of it so much fun.