Quentin Tarantino has done it again.
“Django Unchained” tells the story of former slave, Django, and his bounty-hunting companion, Schultz, as they work together to save Django’s wife Broomhilda from the clutches of the diabolical plantation owner, Candi.
Perhaps saying Tarantino has “done it again” is not quite accurate. Tarantino’s work has many similarities from one film to the next. His dialogue is always beautifully crafted, his scenes are always excellently paced, and his camera work is magnificent. However, stylistically, each film is still very much unique.
His previous film, “Inglourious Basterds,” was slow and at times unbearably tense, punctuated by brief sequences of brutal violence. It had elements of a 1950s American war film in the vein of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” right down to the gloriously over-the-top scene where The Basterds machine gun Hitler’s head into oblivion. These were interspersed with far more down-to-earth themes regarding the reality of the experience of a Jew in Nazi-occupied France.
“Django Unchained” is similar in regard to its blending of cinematic tradition and brutal reality. However, it is still drastically different from “Basterds.” “Django” is far more lighthearted, and feels much more like a spaghetti western. It’s arguably Tarantino’s funniest movie to date, while remaining tasteful in regards to the subject matter of slavery.
But, the differences don’t stop there. Tarantino has had a habit of featuring strong female leads. Ever since “Kill Bill,” they’ve been something of a staple of his work. But, surprisingly, there are none to be found this time around. Instead, as if to entirely disassociate “Django” from his previous work, Tarantino has opted to cast Christoph Waltz as the film’s co-star, the eccentric and kind German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Waltz’s previous role in “Basterds” as the plotting and terrifying Hans Landa was arguably the greatest performance of the film, and Waltz brings that skill once more to “Django” with marvelous results.
Really, most everything about “Django” is downright fantastic. Jamie Foxx’s understated performance as the eponymous Django is engaging and nuanced. Samuel L. Jackson as head house slave Stephen is an excellent addition, and even Leonardo DiCaprio manages to hold his own as the eccentric and foolish plantation owner Calvin Candie. Of course, Christoph Waltz completely steals the show, by playing one of the kindest and truly good-hearted characters ever to appear in a Tarantino film to date. The character of Schultz is the only sympathetic white person in the entire movie, and is clearly appalled by the barbarity and cruelty of slavery.
The comedy spread throughout “Django” is certainly worth noting, as in the hands of a less skilled director, it could have become appallingly racist. As it is, it’s clear Tarantino understands what comedy does. Comedy, at its roots, takes away power. So the comedy in “Django” is always aimed at the ignorant and cruel white southerners, as in the instance of a five-minute-long scene where precursors to the KKK sit around complaining about the difficulties of seeing out of their hoods.
There is one moment in the film that breaks this rule, but only to define it. After witnessing one of the more horrific scenes of cruelty to slaves in the film, while the audience is still reeling, Samuel L. Jackson makes a joke about it. There is a split second of silence to allow the joke to sink in. A few audience members at the screening I attended nervously chuckled. As if on cue, Jamie Foxx turns directly to the camera and stares straight at it with a look of pure hatred. That shut people right up. It was as effective as saying to the camera, “This shit isn’t funny, so shut up.”
Similarly, while the violence towards the protagonists of the film is, if brutal and awful, somewhat subdued, violence aimed at the film’s villains is near comical. Explosions of blood shower the various elaborate sets, and bodies are thrown through doorways with a single pistol shot. It’s a homage to cinema schlock, and it’s beautiful to behold.
The only criticism I can bring to bear on “Django” is the lack of depth to Kerry Washington’s character, Django’s long lost love Broomhilda. She seems more an object to be rescued, rather than a true person, which is really disappointing given Tarantino’s passion for strong women. Still, it’s a minor stumble in an otherwise fabulous film. Even “Django’s” run time, which comes close to an arduous three hours, is acceptable, because it’s one of those rare films you don’t want to end.
The squeamish and easily-offended know by now to steer clear of Tarantino’s work. As for everyone else, we sit with bated breath, waiting for his next film. We pray that it will not be the one to mark the decline of his career into stagnation, following so many greats into mediocrity. Few directors manage to remain competent after 20 years of work. After seeing “Django,” I can safely tell you that Tarantino is still just as talented as he was when he put together “Reservoir Dogs.” Now stop reading this review, grab your friends, run to the theater, and watch “Django.” You’re in for one helluva movie.