If you’re reading this and you haven’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, I highly recommend that you see it now. Don’t even bother to finish reading this review. Just grab your wallet and head for the nearest cinema. You’ll either thank me or curse me later, but I can guarantee that you won’t forget the experience of seeing this movie in theaters. Equal parts Blaxploitation flick and Spaghetti Western, Django Unchained is perhaps the most unique “Western” to ever come out of Hollywood. It’s exceedingly clever, excessively violent, and brimming with wild, creative energy. It’s vintage Tarantino. And it’s also the best thing the man has directed since 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
Unlike Tarantino’s previous work, the plot for Django Unchained is straightforward and linear enough. Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who finds himself liberated by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a cheery dentist who doubles as a cold-blooded bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django to identify a trio of inbred murderers, and Django, it turns out, needs Schultz to help him find his wife (Kerry Washington). The two enter into a Mephistophelean bargain wherein Django agrees to work alongside Schultz as a bounty hunter, and in return for his services, Schultz will help secure the freedom of Django’s wife. The undertaking is no small task, however, as Django’s beloved is under the control of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) one of the wealthiest, most successful players in a vicious, sadistic industry.
It’s about as basic a revenge story as you could imagine. What follows, however, is one of the most inventive Westerns in the history of the genre. For starters, the gun-slinging hero of the picture is a black ex-slave, and in place of the bleak deserts of the Wild West we are treated to the mountains and rolling hills of Mississippi. Furthermore, Django Unchained adopts a Blaxploitation perspective of the time period—every white character aside from Waltz’ German immigrant is foolish, corrupt, or sadistic; every white person is a scumbag or an aider-and-abettor of scumbags. The tone is less A Fistful of Dollars and more Superfly. The decision to adopt that perspective is bold coming from lily white Tarantino, and it’s a stylistic choice that drastically sets Django Unchained apart from the pack.
The script is sharp and clever, vacillating between the ultra-cool dialogue and gunplay of flicks like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the broad humor of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Tarantino doesn’t flinch from showing the dehumanizing aspects of slavery; unlike with the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, the camera here never retreats from acts of sadism. However, true to his nature, Tarantino never allows the proceedings to become too oppressive and ugly; there are plenty of asides, one including Don Johnson and Jonah Hill as members of a moronic lynch mob, that wouldn’t be out of place in a slapstick comedy. These disparate halves of the movie shouldn’t work together, but somehow they do.
The cast is also uniformly fantastic from the leads all the way down to the character actors. Jamie Foxx underplays his slave-turned-killer in such a way that would make Clint Eastwood tip his broad brimmed hat. Christoph Waltz is at his best here, effortlessly depicting a walking contradiction—a man who, despite being a cold-blooded mercenary, is an otherwise decent human being. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career high performance in his first role as a complete villain, and Samuel L. Jackson gives a fantastic performance as DiCaprio’s head house slave in a snaky, two-faced role that runs completely counter to Jackson’s well-established screen persona.
The third act of Django Unchained also stands as Tarantino’s most successful foray into action. The man has never been particularly adept at filming action. Sure, he knows how to depict violence; but those two aren’t necessarily one and the same. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, and Jackie Brown may have been bloody, but acts of violence tended to serve as exclamation points to the on-screen drama. Kill Bill boasted some legitimate action scenes, but the stunt work came up short when compared with the films Tarantino was aping. On the other hand, the final hour or so of Django Unchained boasts several instances of sustained, slick, visceral gunplay that would make Sam Peckinpah cream his pants.
This is the first time Tarantino has fully delved into a genre and produced a work that was arguably as good as the best movies of that genre. It’s also arguably Tarantino’s best work as a director if not as a writer. Django Unchained is at once inventive, playful, brutal, and cool. It’s also one of the most unforgettable movies of 2012.