After taking on crime drama, pulp novelization, blaxploitation, samurai swordplay, grindhouse, and even war films, Quentin Tarantino set his sights on another classic genre to give it his unique sense of spin: the Western.
Just before the American Civil War, former dentist Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) acquires the assistance of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). The deal is simple: if Django can identify three men on the run from the law, he will be set free upon their death or capture and a few dollars in his pocket. As it turns out, however, Django has a natural skill for bounty hunting. After the two become good friends, Dr. Shultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), but to do so, they’ll have to spirit her away from a ruthless plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Southerner who does not like to lose.
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has never shied away from controversial subject matter. In fact, he seems to seek it out, intent in making films however he sees fit and to provoke a reaction that “safe” filmmakers actively avoid. Django is a buddy flick and revenge film driven by love and fueled by farce, a dangerous mix that proves entertaining all the way around. As usual, it’s a character piece, but that doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have its twists and turns. After deadly serious films like Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, there is an underlying silliness to Django that threatens to undermine the entire film but happily never derails it.
There is a sense that Tarantino knows exactly how many toes he’s stepping on. After an almost puritan attempt to demonize the word and have it stricken from every book and tablet, the script for Django tosses around “the n-word” with abandon. Racism and rednecks can be found everywhere (including among the typical parade of cameos and a few choice favorites), but the crimes against humanity are thrown around equally and few offending characters go unpunished. Hey, it may be a Western, but it’s a Tarantino Western, meaning people will be screaming, the blood will flow freely and be splattered about, and the explosions are unnecessarily bigger than they have to be.
One standout, as always, is Christoph Waltz, in a role that could only have been written with him in mind. As a dentist-turned-bounty hunter, he speaks his mind eloquently and dangerously, an amoral opportunist that you can’t help but like on his charms alone. In direct contrast is Jamie Foxx, playing Django with a underspoken rage that’s always a hair-trigger away from bodies hitting the floor, and no one can blame him. Leonardo DiCaprio’s villanous turn suits him, disappearing completely into a vile man of privilege that puts little value on any life other than his own. To cap it all off, Tarantino-favorite Samuel L. Jackson reminds us again how electrifying and terrifying he can be.
After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction put him on the map, Quentin Tarantino’s work has been unapologetic whether a hit or miss. With the one-two punch of Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained, the writer/director seems to have found a happy medium between entertainment and exposition that, while still overlong, fills that time well and rewards viewers for their time and effort. Now, where’s my Kill Bill sequel before I stop feeling raw about it?
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)