(by Dustin Putman
Quentin Tarantino (2009's "Inglourious Basterds") mixes and matches movie genres and unapologetically anachronistic soundtrack cues with the glee and know-how that can only come from a die-hard film aficionado, and his dialogue, at once learned, thoughtful and deliriously off-the-wall, never ceases flowing like a poetic spring. A spaghetti western (equipped with a brand-new track from Ennio Morricone), a brains-popping revenge thriller set in Pre-Civil War slave territory, a devilish dark comedy, a love story of makeshift kings and princesses locked away in faraway castles—"Django Unchained" is all of this and, as is Tarantino's custom, so much more. Even taking into account a 165-minute running time that might have been wise to shave fifteen to twenty minutes from its final length, this is still the late holiday season's most dizzyingly imaginative and thoroughly pleasing release, an end-of-year jewel as chock-full of sizzling performances as it is bursting with busted knee caps and spurting innards. To see it is to not quite believe it. And, wow—we white folks sure were despicable sub-human beings back in the day, weren't we? Article continues below
The year is 1858. The time is two years prior to the War Between the States. The place is "Somewhere in Texas." From out of the darkness comes Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who despises slavery just about as much as slaves do. After making sure to do away with the two burly dealers pulling a line of shackled black men through the forest, Schultz enters into an agreement with one of them, Django (Jamie Foxx): help him to find the Brittle Bros., who are wanted dead or alive, and receive a cash reward and his freedom. When it becomes apparent that they make an ideal team, Schultz does him one better: he agrees to accompany him to Mississippi plantation "Candyland" to buy back Django's wife, the frightened and abused Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). If this tactic doesn't work, then they just might have to take matters into their own gun-toting hands, starting with joyously hedonistic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
No one writes dialogue the way Quentin Tarantino does, with every solitary syllable drawing the viewer ever more into the specialized world he's created. Thus, while the film is set in the midst of a shameful period in United States history—when slavery was legal and widely accepted, particularly in the South—there are just enough sneaky, savvy tweakings that also revise the past for a brand-new cinematic reality. It's what he did with World War II and Adolf Hitler's maniacal reign in "Inglourious Basterds," and it's what he does here with King Schultz and Django, firing up a blood-drenched path everywhere they roam while making all involved pay for the racial, sexual, and physically abusive indignities they've only served to perpetuate. Schultz may be a bounty hunter and killer, but he stands alongside the audience as the story's moral compass; even as he dishes out his own form of judgment, he is doing it as a direct response to what he deems as not only wrong, but outright repugnant. As he and Django travel around, their logic in the face of their own self-made violence makes a heck of a lot of sense as they utter Tarantino's delicious words.
If the first half shares many similarities with westerns and road dramas, the second half, set prominently at the repulsive Candyland, is like a war of one-upmanship and words, tensions sizzling beneath the surface and ready to burst open at any moment. Schultz enters into a sales agreement with Calvin Candie to buy Hildy, reunited with Django (but keeping it secret), but as they edge closer to finalize it, something begins to smell fishy on both sides. With quiet paranoia taking over, Tarantino milks the uncomfortable situation for all it's worth. When the payoff comes, it is both brutally blunt and drawn out to a degree of intentional exploitation, the filmmaker pleasing his forefathers of spaghetti shoot-'em-ups and, perhaps, satisfying his own bloodlust in regards to the horridness of human ownership based on the color of one's skin. There is no mistaking his ridicule of racism in, for example, a very funny scene involving the Ku Klux Klan as they struggle to ride their horses and see through the eye holes of the silly white bags over their heads. As for the entire last half-hour (including one interlude involving a certain cameo-making director that should have been cut or extensively shortened), it is nothing if not a scathing indictment of just one dark, shameful patch in U.S. history.
If Christoph Waltz was spitefully predatory in his Oscar-winning role in "Inglourious Basterds," his role as King Schultz in "Django Unchained" is different in nearly every way beyond both people being killers. If he used his power and menace for bad in the former film, however, here he is one of the few people who makes any sense. His Schultz is charming, even-keeled, and sympathetic; the gory deeds he pulls off are not a product of his personality, but of his profession and what he knows deep down to be right. Waltz is an utter hoot for every second he's on screen, working Tarantino's lines as if they were meant for him (and, wouldn't you know it, they were). As Django, Jamie Foxx (2011's "Horrible Bosses") services as an iconic figure of the picture as a whole; he's along for the ride, low-key and perceptive until he takes matters into his own hands, his early work dispatching of the Brittle Bros. a sign of what he's capable of—and what is to come. Digging his claws into the ego-centric, arguably psychologically unhinged Calvin J. Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio (2011's "J. Edgar") is an exceptional villain, rooted in his family's wealthy, slave-owning lineage while apparently taking further inspiration from Snidely Whiplash. His role is one of those colorful supporting ones that has less screen time than the leads, but is often the most unforgettable face around. Fortunately, here, there are more than just one great side parts, with an indelible Samuel L. Jackson (2012's "The Avengers") virtually unrecognizable as Stephen, a lifelong slave who sees nothing wrong with his position or dehumanization. In an even smaller turn, but one that instantaneously makes a person wish he was more prevalent in film today, Don Johnson (2011's "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star") steals his scenes as Big Daddy, a highfalutin Tennessee plantation owner with more slaves than he knows what to do with.
The weak of stomach had best sit "Django Unchained" out, which is as violent as any past Quentin Tarantino film. Consequently, the overkill of its death and destruction—by the final scene, there isn't much that's not painted red—also makes it slightly more palatable and certainly more twistedly amusing. Gallows humor intermixes with shockingly perverse imagery courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson (2011's "Hugo") and a much-needed catharsis tied in a bow on top, and it is precisely what Tarantino has intended all along, not satisfied in the least to walk silently into the night when he has a whole way of living—even if it was over 150 years ago—to eviscerate. "Django Unchained" isn't without its extraneous flourishes as editor Fred Raskin (2011's "Fast Five") tries to figure out what to keep and what to cut from its voluminous scope, but when it's on target, which is the vast majority of time, there is just about no better auteur working today than Tarantino. He knows what he wants, he knows how to get it, and he knows what it means to make one-of-a-kind motion pictures that work just as well intellectually and emotionally as they do as giddy spectacle.