Please excuse the awful joke, but Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino unhinged. For his past few films, Tarantino has been more or less doing exactly what he wants to do – a position that most writers and directors work their whole careers to achieve. This artistic freedom has been both a gift and a curse for Tarantino as he has, quite rightly in the words of his character Lt. Aldo Raine, made his masterpiece with his last film Inglourious Basterds, but slipped up a bit before that in the genre jumble that was Death Proof. “Genre” is the key word here, because Tarantino is the type of guy who can basically just sculpt his own unique anachronistic visions out of pre-existing genre norms and have that angle be his hallmark. Jackie Brown was his Blaxploitation movie, Kill Bill Vol. 1 was his samurai flick, Death Proof was his pseudo slasher/chase thriller, and Inglourious Basterds was his war movie. Though there were definite nods to spaghetti westerns in Kill Bill Vol. 2, it’s in Django Unchained that he embraces and rewrites his own version of the western on his own terms to a somewhat turgid but ultimately satisfying end.
Is it limiting to only be able to do your own version of a particular genre from movie to movie? I’d say it could be likely depending on the filmmaker, but not for someone as talented as Tarantino. By birthing his characters out of his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history his creations are allowed to begin anew - simultaneously being influenced by Cinema’s past but also existing fresh on their own accord.
That said, Django Unchained is about of a former slave who, along with a German bounty hunter looking to collect his own fortunes, seeks to rescue his wife and kill the slavers who took her– a simple revenge story. Have there been characters like Django – played here with a dangerous swagger by Jamie Foxx -- in other movies? Yes obviously, not only in Tarantino’s own oeuvre but in fact there was a whole series of films starring Franco Nero as a version of the titular character in the 70s. But Tarantino’s Django is nevertheless unique despite the stereotypes. His Django is a man compelled to get to the one he loves by any means necessary. As he says in the movie, if that means getting dirty along the way then so be it. Foxx’s performance shows that he is a man literally and figuratively scarred by the injustice done to him and if he needs to be the bad guy then he’ll do it as long as he gets his.
Equally as compelling is the amazing Christoph Waltz who plays the hilarious -- and just as dangerous -- German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. Anybody else who would dare to put a Dumas-quoting gun-toting former German dentist-turned killer character in their film would be mad – but not Tarantino. Waltz knows how to ooze charm out of Tarantino’s dialogue whether he is trying to be funny or threatening, and though Schultz may ultimately not be as indelible as the Hans Landa character from Basterds that earned Waltz an Academy Award, we can still rest easy now that we can root for him as the good guy. The same oozing charm goes for the almost dastardly perfect Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio as the villain – a first for DiCaprio if I can recall. The conniving smile that continues to run across his rotting teeth throughout the film is the first reason you hate him, but the sense of joy that DiCaprio conveys in playing out Candie’s vile behavior makes for the best onscreen character you love to hate this year.
The cast is filled with a ton of recognizable faces like Don Johnson playing a ridiculous Colonel Sanders-esque plantation owner, Jonah Hill in a puzzling cameo as one of Johnson’s KKK cronies, and Walton Goggins as one of Candie’s racist henchman. The two supporting roles that stand out are the absolutely radiant Kerry Washington playing Django’s wife Broomhilda, and the man born to speak Tarantino’s dialogue – Samuel L. Jackson playing Stephen the evil house slave. Washington spends most of the film as a hallucination that Django sees throughout his journey, reminding him of why he needs to keep going. Such an initially passive role could have been mishandled if it weren’t for Washington’s earnest portrayal in flashbacks of someone who yearns for their freedom in the hands of such evil. Then there is Jackson, a guy who could be speaking in hushed tones or shouting at the top of his lungs and make this stuff sound good. As an audience member you actively root for Candie and the other evil characters to get their comeuppance, and though it takes awhile for it to happen, boy do they ever. Some screenwriters know how to write good villains like these, and Tarantino is one of the best.
If I could find a minor flaw with the film it’s the way it handles getting to the ending. It seems to lead to a climax that doesn’t happen, then leads to another climax, and then leads elsewhere until finally coming to an end. It does a good job of making you want to see the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but at some points it feels like Tarantino is teasing you for expecting the proper ending at specific times. This isn’t a complaint about the length of the movie, it’s merely a complaint that it could have done without some of the extended codas to get to that amazing finale.
In all, Quentin Tarantino is on quite a role and he knows it too. He can basically do whatever he wants until he decides it’s time to hang ‘em up and stop making movies. Whatever he does end up making next I’ll be there, but until then it’s safe to say that Django Unchained is the bloodiest fun I’ve had at a movie theater this year.