Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to not only turn the disgusting legacy of slavery into a ludicrously entertaining/empowering Spaghetti Western romp, but to also release it on Christmas day. The filmmaker is nothing if not ballsy and while he can be an easy whipping boy for directorial excess, he’s also just as talented as he thinks he is.
It would be difficult to find anyone who thought a slavery Western was a good idea for the director who already pissed off Spike Lee many Christmases ago for all of the n-bombs in Jackie Brown. As always, he didn’t listen and embarked on a project that could so easily have become a source of finger wagging scorn for his detractors. Instead, it just might be the most purely satisfying and entertaining film he’s made since the 90s. The increased interest and skill in visual storytelling remains, but the movie quoting has been cut down and appropriately limited to Western name-dropping. Plus the director’s love of salty and lovingly crafted dialogue returns in full force. He may have named Inglourious Basterds his masterpiece in the final scene, but Django Unchained could be the ultimate Tarantino movie since of the 2000s. All of the cine-literate quoting and choreographed ultraviolence of Kill Bill are back along with the alternate history showmanship of Basterds. It feels like a culmination of everything that the movie-obsessive has been toying with over the last ten years and also plays as his most straightforward slice of genre entertainment since Reservoir Dogs. There are certainly flaws, but this is the type of flick that entertains so well that it’s hard to complain.Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not ballsy and while he can be an easy whipping boy for directorial excess, he’s also just as talented as he thinks he is.
So, Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave who is purchased at gunpoint by German dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz likes to shoot first and then provide proper documentation ensuring his murder is approved by the government later. Coming from Germany, he doesn’t believe in “slavery malarkey” and he buys Django only so that they can catch and kill the three brothers that the former slave knows too well. Django not only provides the necessary information, but proves to be surprisingly good at killing those folks as well. After learning about Django’s lost wife named Broomhilda, Shcultz decides that it’s his duty as a good German to reunite the star-crossed lovers and train Django as a bounty hunter. They travel through the West and Django transforms into bounty killin’ badass along the way. Eventually they end up at the Candyland Ranch, a disgusting plantation of slave prostitution and Mandingo fights to the death, run by Leonardo DiCaprio’s boy emperor Calvin Candie. Schultz and Django pose as would-be Mandingo trainers to gain access and sneakily steal Broomhilda away. Unfortunately Samuel L Jackson’s evil Uncle Tom housemaster sees through the ruse and a bloody battle must ensue to set things straight. Hey, how else could a Western possibly end other than a shootout?
So, by Tarantino standards, it’s actually a fairly straight-forward tale, told linearly and driven by revenge and a hero’s origin story. Of course, by normal filmmaking standards it’s anything but. The film is viciously violent, filled with long winded dialogue passages, and more uses of the n-word than you can possibly imagine. However, it’s also darkly hilarious (a scene in which KKK members complain about their masks could be the funniest few minutes of any film this year), ridiculously entertaining, and empowering in how it presents the African American characters. Working once again with genius cinematographer Robert Richardson, Tarantino recreates the Spaghetti Western style beautifully, framing his characters like genre icons in epic landscapes and he never needlessly changes the style of the film, it’s always a Western even when James Brown or Tupac pop up on the soundtrack (Johnny Cash also makes an appearance to keep things traditional). Much like Basterds, he plays with history to his own purpose without being disrespectful and uses his skill with dialogue to weave long scenes with sudden dramatic gearshifts (there’s nothing quite as impactful as the Basterds basement masterpiece of tension, but the Candyland dinner comes close). In short, the film represents everything Tarantino does well, not the least of which involves his work with actors.
There are a number of spectacular performances in Django, the best probably belonging to Christoph Waltz. He’s clearly an actor put on earth to lovingly spout Tarantino’s dialogue and is just as good here as he was in Basterds, but will likely be left out of Awards consideration simply because he’ll be taken for granted. DiCaprio digs into the role of the despicable slave master with sadistic glee. He’s havening so much fun that he may as well have paid to be in the movie and since the role actually suits his physicality (unlike say his work with Scorsese), he’s an electrifying presence of rotten tooth evil. Samuel L. Jackson might be even better as his ass-kissy servant, he’s almost unrecognizable when he first appears on screen with his infamously strong screen presence (some call it bad-assitude) hidden beyond a hobbled and weak old man. Of course, over time the intimidating Jackson presence returns in possibly the most evil character in the film, clashing against Fox’s Django as the flip side of black empowerment. Foxx is fine in the lead. His scenes are routinely stolen by those three actors and others, but he does what’s required. Django is a quiet, stoic hero, so there aren’t really opportunities to showboat and while other performers (certainly Jackson in his prime) could have commanded the screen in silence, Foxx can’t quite pull it off, but at least his presence in no way hurts the movie.
Django Unchained might not be Tarantino’s most groundbreaking or intellectual movie, but it could very well be his most purely entertaining. There are other flaws in Django Unchained beyond the Foxx miscasting. It’s a bit too long, Tarantino makes a particularly irritating cameo, and the lone female character Broomhilda has very little to do (which is odd given Tarantino’s knack for writing bad ass lady heroes). However, all the flaws are thankfully small and easy to ignore. For the most part, the film is a thrilling success that delivers everything the director always wants from his movies: it’s pure guttural exploitation movie entertainment with level of art and craft normally saved for prestige awards pictures. It might not be Tarantino’s most groundbreaking or intellectual movie, but it could very well be his most purely entertaining. For fans of the director, Westerns, or just good old fashion subversive entertainment, Django Unchained is the movie to see this Christmas. Don’t waste your time getting depressed while people sing about death and whoring in France in Les Miserables. Let Tarantino take you on a wild, violent, and hilarious journey through the old West and slavery that straddles the line and settles just on the right side of the good taste/bad taste divide. You don’t want to miss the chance to see this on Christmas. Just think of all the family holidays you’ll get to see ruined as yours becomes the best ever!