It seemed like only a matter of time before Quentin Tarantino would make his version of a western. His career has been hinting at it for awhile. Films like Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the Kill Bill series borrow elements from the genre—particularly from spaghetti westerns. But now, with Django Unchained, we see him delve deeply into it. There is no confusing where the source of Tarantino’s inspiration lies; the title clearly gives it away. He is unmistakably calling back to Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci, particularly his film Django (1966), starring Franco Nero. This is made even more evident when the opening credits use the same theme song. But this is not a director simply copying from his cinematic hero. He has created a story infused with his own personal touch, including all the great dialogue and well-built suspense/violence that we have come to expect.
We open two years prior to the American Civil War, with slavery at its highest point. In this story, Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who saw his entire world come crashing down at the hands of cruel slave masters. After attempting to escape, he is punished by being branded and sold separately from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). It’s obvious that Broomhilda is the only real thing Django has, as we see him often fantasizing about being by her side. Foxx does a good job showcasing the arc of his character, from the broken spirit to the growing eagerness to find his love to the person just barely able to hold back his anger. Often times we see the rage bubbling just beneath Django’s surface, especially during scenes where he is forced to go against his natural instincts. This leads to quite a number of tension-filled moments.
Django’s partner in crime is the German immigrant Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, Schultz is actually a highly skilled bounty hunter. He enlists Django in his company, in hopes that the former slave can help identify his next mark. Like with his Oscar-winning work as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz fills his role with a surprising level of glee. He seems to be having a ball with his performance. While he can shoot a man dead without hesitation, he can also charm you with his gentleman-like demeanor. This makes him the perfect con man. Both Django and Schultz help one another infiltrate hostile environments and take down criminals as a bounty hunting team. Their skills are put to the test when they learn that Broomhilda has been purchased by the cruel and sadistic southern plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The first thing to note in this film is the level of graphic violence. This is nothing new coming from Tarantin, but here it is ratcheted up to an even higher level. There is brutal killing, torture, and other inhumane acts I’d rather not describe. If Tarantino wanted to showcase his villains as despicable human beings, he accomplished that in spades. I can’t recall another mainstream movie where the “N” word is used so freely—he must have been going for some kind of record. The amount of unflinching violence and racism may appear to approach exploitation, but Tarantino diffuses that potential by making this thoroughly entertaining as well. Predictably, his dialogue is a standout, giving characters unique personalities and giving each the opportunity to deliver a comedic line or two. As dark and disgusting as certain stretches get, we also get a handful of hilariously over the top scenes of absurdity. One gunfight goes so far as to become a ballet in bloodshed.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie sticks to mind as a quandary. Yes, he is hamming it up on purpose, and most times he is effective. But there were instances where it feels like he is trying too hard. There are very few people that can make exaggeration look like second nature, and sometimes—just sometimes—DiCaprio appeared to be reaching. On the flip side, one of the pleasant surprises is the work by longtime Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s plays Stephen, Candie’s elder flunky, who suspects any stranger of no good. Stephen acts as a bigger part than expected, with surprising motivations only revealed in the final moments of the film.
Tarantino may very well be the only filmmaker alive who can make an entertaining homage to the spaghetti western, and set it during the darkest time in America’s history. How he was able to make it work, I’m not so sure—but it does. Django Unchained may cross the line in its excess, but all the while, it remains consistently riveting up to its spectacular end. There isn’t that classic line or memorable scene that will be frequently quoted like in Tarantino’s previous outings, but I can’t deny that he has provided an experience completely unique from anything else. In blending styles and keeping us consistently surprised, he has once again given us one of the year’s best.
Final Grade: A