Quentin Tarantino has still got it.
Not that there’s ever been a question of the filmmaker losing his way or his nerve for that matter, but it really is something to see a director of his ilk churning out masterpiece after masterpiece, as if each new picture he makes seems to have him coming into his best form. Each new movie is immediately thrust into the conversation of being his best, and DJANGO UNCHAINED is no different. As he’s done with various genres in the past, be it crime drama, exploitation, swordplay or historical fantasy, Tarantino bends and twists them to his liking, putting his own unique stamp on the conventions that have become synonymous with these type of pictures. This time, it’s the Spaghetti Western that’s got his eye, as DJANGO UNCHAINED tells the story of a hero’s quest to rescue his wife and exact a bit of revenge from those who’ve done him wrong along the way set against the backdrop of the Deep South during the days of slavery.
That hero is the titular character Django, played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx, a freed slave who enters into a partnership with King Schultz – the always mesmorizing Christoph Waltz – a dentist-turned-bounty hunter, who agrees to help Django on his search to find his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) in exchange for some time and assistance tracking down and killing wanted white folks to make money. I haven’t always been a big Foxx fan, but where I’ve found him most effective is in these roles that begin quite soft-spoken but allow plenty of room for his moxie to break through as his character is forced to rise to the occasion to accomplish something great. It was a similar arc for Foxx in COLLATERAL, which, to this point, I found to be his most even work. But Foxx absolutely shines here as the focal point of DJANGO, bringing both a quiet subtlety and a rough-edged force to the character when necessary. Even in his most understated moments, there’s still this underlying fire present to his demeanor that Foxx naturally brings to the role, allowing for a smooth transition between this captive Negro who fears the repercussions of his slave traders and a free black man who exudes a certain confidence that comes with having to answer to no one but himself. Back when I read through an early draft of the script many months back, that was when Will Smith seemed to be Tarantino’s top choice for the lead, and I was quite intrigued to see him do something so different from his usual material. After watching Foxx absolutely own the role, I can’t imagine it played any better by anyone.
Let me not take anything away from Waltz though, who is equally as important as Django in making the film work, as without his half of the partnership, the film would lack elegance only he can offer through a delightfulness that permeates his words. Whether it’s been as the charming yet ruthless Hans Landa in Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTARDS or the wasted villain in GREEN HORNET, Waltz commands your attention every moment he’s on-screen, and that charisma changes not a bit in DJANGO, with Waltz providing some semblance of a moral compass during this dark mark in America’s history, which is ironic in its own right since the one white man present who does not believe in slavery does believe in the killing of people for reward. This is a part Tarantino wrote specifically for Waltz, and, following his award-winning supporting performance in BASTARDS, it shows that this working relationship is capable of something special everything they choose to work together. The quick-witted dialogue that emerges from the end of Tarantino’s pen just rolls off the tip of Waltz’s tongue with ease, whether excitedly relaying a German folktale to unfamiliar ears, verbally jousting with Leonardo DiCaprio’s despicable villain or bantering swiftly with Django in a conversation about the meaning of the word “positive.” Waltz has been a tour de force in every film he’s taken on thus far, but he seems to raise his game even further when it’s one from the mind of QT.
Let’s get to DiCaprio though, who seems to be having a blast playing the most vile and disgusting character he’s ever inhabited in his career, Monsieur Calvin Candie, a Francophile incapable of speaking the simplest French who owns the large plantation known as Candyland. It’s here that he’s taken to occupying his time betting on Mandingo fighting, a bloodsport pitting male slaves against each other to the death while their owners cheer on the brutality, and renting out ponies – female slaves used for “comfort” – to those who come calling for such services. It’s also where Django will find his wife, leading to a plan being devised by the bounty hunting duo to hustle Candie in a deal so sweet, it’d be ridiculous to refuse… a deal that would have them walking away with Broomhilda as merely an afterthought. That makes for plenty of gamesmanship between Schultz and Candie, two men who have a bit of disdain for the other right off the bat, as they try to negotiate a deal they can both live with. Watching DiCaprio’s Candie operate as if he’s getting the best of this pairing is an absolute joy, no matter how villainous the character is. We’ve never gotten to see this side of DiCaprio, and frankly I want to see more. I beg someone to please give this gifted actor more opportunities to play bad guys with this amount of meat. We’ve seen him play sweet and heroic with plenty of complexity on numerous occasions, but in this taste of DiCaprio embracing a bit of evil, I believe we’ve only really scratched the surface of what he’s capable of on-screen… and that’s saying a lot when you consider the career he’s had to this point.
DiCaprio doesn’t bring the bad all by himself though, as Candie is constantly accompanied by his house Negro Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is all too eager to turn against his fellow slaves for the benefits it affords him in being in such good standing with the master. There are moments when you can make the argument that Stephen is much more of an awful human being than Calvin Candie for doing everything in his power to maintain the status quo, to keep his fellow Negroes down, by eliminating any and every chance they may have for happiness, joining in on their degradation whenever he can. He’s a cantankerous personality who puts all of his deviousness into foiling whatever Django may have going on behind the scenes at the plantation he calls home. No Negro is going to come riding in on a horse and get away with it. Samuel L. Jackson has turned out plenty of memorable performances over the years, and now he can add his turn as Stephen among his finest.
DJANGO UNCHAINED isn’t without its share of Tarantino flair either, as one of the film’s big gunfights definitely doesn’t lack in squibs to splatter the scene with blood spray. On top of that, you’ve got that Tarantino-infused dialogue sure to make you laugh at all the right moments (as evidenced by a great group argument about whether an early version of a Ku Klux Klan should wear bags over the head, regardless of the problems they bring) while also adding a serious gravity to this rescue and revenge tale by painting an in-your-face portrayal of slavery right before the Civil War. Add in your traditionally great soundtrack for a Tarantino flick, and you’ve got one hell of a movie.
While the subject matter is hardly light at times, there is a great degree of fun to be had watching DJANGO UNCHAINED. You can see the passion Tarantino has for the project in every frame that comes across the screen, and that gets passed down to you as a member of the audience who is sure to be swept away by this simple story he’s put together with strong characters you want to spend nearly three hours of your life with. Don’t be surprised to find DJANGO UNCHAINED high up on my Top 10 list for the year, because this is a great piece of film and another instance where Tarantino takes his best shot at topping his previous works and comes pretty damn close to succeeding.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.