Quentin Tarantino could easily be referred to as an auteur at this point. Each and every one of his projects is unique, eclectic, and visually sumptuous, and every idea that comes from his twisted, genius-level mind is brilliant. His latest is Django Unchained, a spaghetti western set in the time of slavery and inspired by an old western action film from the 60s. In anyone else’s hands, it’s a recipe for disaster. In Tarantino’s hands, it’s arguably the best film of the year.
Unchained centers on a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), purchased and subsequently set free and employed by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to find and kill the notorious Brittle Brothers. In return for his help, Schultz will help Django find and liberate his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The name Broomhilda, Schultz says, is inspired by an old German opera in which a woman by the same name must be rescued from the dragon’s fire by a brave knight. Here, Broomhilda is owned by the charming and cruel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who traffics in prostitution and Mandingo fighting at his infamous plantation known as Candyland.
Obvious joke is obvious.
The narrative of Django Unchained is complex and engaging. It effortlessly captures the lightning in a bottle that is a revenge-focused spaghetti western with a darkly comedic edge, with liberal doses of buddy-movie trappings. The movie’s long running time seems to speed by extraordinarily fast, and the pacing is perfect, helped along by an excellent set of characters played by a winning cast.
Christoph Waltz, for his part, proves once again that he’s in a league of his own. From his impeccable mannerisms, roll-off-the-tongue vernacular, and incorrigible cheeriness, Waltz is an absolute delight as Schultz. Apart from silly quirks such as smoothing his mustache or introducing his horse by name, Schultz is simply an irreversibly lovable character. He treats Django as an equal, and later as a dear friend. He displays a healthy distaste for racism and slavery and is visibly upset at violence towards slaves (though he has no problem brutally murdering his bounties).
As the piece’s main villain, Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant. His turn as Calvin Candie is sweet and polite, with a powerful undercurrent of raw menace. A speech the character gives outlining the differences in phrenology between blacks and whites is one of the best-acted scenes of the actor’s career. Accolades also go to Samuel L. Jackson as old Stephen. Jackson rounds out a fantastic ensemble as a slave so ingrained into his master’s employ that some of Candie’s evil seems to have rubbed off. He and DiCaprio have outstanding chemistry in their shared scenes, escalating a sadistic energy that carries the plantation scenes to a fever pitch.
This is bolstered by Tarantino’s script, which crackles with charm and a deft understanding of the English language. Tarantino’s prose stands alongside the best of them. As with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino handles sensitive material with panache. Things that aren’t supposed to be funny aren’t, and the devastating situation of slavery is treated with respect for those wronged by it. However, humor is applied liberally everywhere else, particularly in portraying most of the slave owners as pompous morons. This comes to a head during a scene in which a roving gang of KKK-esque bandits stop to complain about visibility problems through their masks, and proceed to argue over whether they should keep them on. This, and other pieces throughout the film, are funnier than most comedies that released this year.
Finally, there are the visual and aural aspects. The soundtrack is possibly the best it’s ever been in a Tarantino film, hearkening back to the shamelessly unhinged feel of Kill Bill with a few well-placed classics and a couple of delightful surprises that I won’t spoil. While the recent death of longtime Tarantino editor Sally Menke can be felt here, Fred Raskin still has a lot of fun in the editing room and helps the film retain that same sense of style. The camerawork is also fantastic—Tarantino and his Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson simply get better and better with each film.
While he doesn’t top my personal favorite of his films, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has crafted an extremely entertaining spaghetti western wrapped around a story that is equal parts revenge tale and buddy movie. This is all wrapped in an engaging setting where slavery reigns supreme, and Tarantino pulls no punches in displaying the brutality and racism of the times. It makes for a feeling of authenticity with just enough fantasy to throw things off balance in a way that simply works. I can’t even joke about it—Django Unchained is terrific.
Man, the Internet has everything.
Take a Drink: every time a gunshot results in a huge eruption of blood.
Do a Shot: when you recognize the famous cameo from that 60s film.
Take a Drink: every time the camera performs a rush zoom.
Take a Drink: whenever Schultz performs one of his trademark mannerisms.