Django Unchained (R, 4/5 stars, currently priced at $4.99 to rent and $12.99 to buy) is the latest effort from Quentin Tarantino, and it does not disappoint!
Full disclosure: I am a Tarantino fan, but I don’t love ALL of his work. For example, I didn’t go in much for the Grindhouse series of highly stylized, retro slasher flicks, and I didn’t much care for Inglorious Basterds, either.
With the Grindhouse films, since I was a small child when the 70’s slasher flicks on which these movies were based were popular, it’s likely that most of the details, in-jokes, winks and references went over my head. To me, his Grindhouse series just seemed like a splatterfest that was high on exploitation but not very clever—and clever is one of the things I expect from a good Tarantino film.
As for Inglorious Basterds, it struck me as little more than a Nazi snuff/revenge film, as if Tarantino gleefully set about finding every possible way to make circa-WWII Nazis suffer, then wrote it down in a screenplay and filmed it. Also, while most of the performances in the movie were pretty strong, I felt Brad Pitt came across as little more than a caricature, and he didn’t have nearly as much screen time as you’d expect, based on the film’s trailers.
In Django Unchained, it seems like Tarantino is returning to the Western/outlaw roots he touched on in Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2. As in those films, the hero of this story is an antihero: a gifted assassin who cuts his way through wave after wave of his enemies to see his justice done. Also like in Kill Bill, when the story begins the hero is a powerless victim, and he’s got a big score to settle.
Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom, Ray) plays Django, a slave who was separated from his wife when they were sold off, separately, as punishment for attempting to escape from the plantation where they were being kept. When Django is on a forced march in a chain gang of slaves, German bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz approaches the white men in charge. He’s after the bounty for a gang of brothers, but since he’s never seen them himself he needs someone who has seen them to verify their identities before he kills them. He’s aware of a slave named Django who can identify the men. I can’t say much more about the meeting between Shultz and Django without giving away some spoilers, but suffice it to say Shultz is a very enlightened, reasonable, and even gentle man, but he’s also fearless and even a bit ruthless when it comes to dealing with any rough and lawless men who dare stand in his way.
So the plot is pretty straightforward. But as with Tarantino’s best work, it’s the little things that add up to more than the sum of the parts here. The dialog is both witty and clever, serving to amuse while also revealing the various characters’ true motivations and meanings in very subtle ways. The performances are solid across the board, with Christoph Waltz (as Shultz) and Jamie Foxx (as Django) being the real standouts, as you’d expect. Also like the rest of Tarantino’s best work, you’ll find violence cheek by jowl with humor in this movie.
However, I disagree with the reviewers who said this is Tarantino’s most graphically violent and bloody picture to date: that honor still goes to the Kill Bill films, in my opinion. There’s plenty of violence and blood, and many, MANY people are gunned down in a spray of bullets and blood. There’s a bit involving attack dogs that’s a little hard to stomach too, but believe it or not, I came away feeling that if anything, compared to the torture porn in films like the Saw franchise, Tarantino has become downright restrained in his depictions of death.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie was a big surprise for me in this film. The plantation owner he plays could’ve easily been turned into a two-dimensional stereotype seen so often in films about the deep South before the Civil War. But DiCaprio’s interpretation of this casually vicious man makes him not only believable, but thoroughly human. While you may despise Candie for his beliefs about race, DiCaprio’s performance makes the inconceivable…believable. Watching the film, you can understand how it was possible for men like Calvin Candie to exist and feel completely justified in all they did.
As a final note, I’d like to recommend the Django Unchained Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (4.5/5 stars, currently priced at $13.49). It’s an eclectic mixture of spaghetti western, soul, folk, spiritual and hip-hop, and it includes many snippets of dialog from the movie as well. Finding just the right piece of music, that’s somehow both fitting and a little surprising, has become a Tarantino trademark, and this soundtrack is no exception.