The great thing about a Quentin Tarantino movie is that the director loves making films in seldom seen genres. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s spaghetti western, which is a genre I’m not at all personally familiar with but it’s easy to recognize certain conventions. The use of conspicuous camera zooms and modern music create a fun and anti-realistic atmosphere for the story. Now, the way I understand traditional spaghetti westerns, the story isn’t very good. Instead, the writers just try to create a believable scenario in which one hero kills a bunch of villains in a gun fight. Fortunately, Tarantino’s script for Django Unchained is excellent. Almost too good. It reminds me of my only criticism of Tarantino’s Death Proof – that it actually had structure and compelling characters and was thus way too good for a grindhouse movie. Here, Tarantino once again rises above the expectations of his genre to put together a fantastic, character-driven final product.
The film tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx; Ray), a slave who has been bought by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz; Inglorius Basterds) in order to help him track down three criminal brothers and earn his freedom. Once they find the brothers and collect their bounty, Dr. Schultz enlists Django’s help as his partner for the winter, after which he agrees to help Django find his wife (Kerry Washington; Ray), who is kept at a massive cotton plantation in Mississippi run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio; The Departed). This description makes the film sound maybe more episodic, reminiscent of Inglorius Basterds, but actually it’s completely linear with the exception of a few flashbacks throughout. I for one really enjoy when Tarantino steps away from his tendency for crazy non-linear structures. It makes it feel less gimmicky when he does do it; like it’s always done with purpose even though I may not fully understand what his purpose is.
Beyond the film’s script and direction being fun and interesting, the cast perfectly execute it. I’m thrilled that Will Smith turned down the role of Django. He probably would have done a very good job, but I can picture every aspect of his performance and it would have been generally lesser than Jamie Foxx’s terrific performance here. One of the best things about the character is that everything he says has purpose. For most of the film, he’s silent, letting Schultz or anyone else do the talking while he just watches and learns at an exponential rate.
Christoph Waltz should only ever do Tarantino films. He always does kind of the same thing, but there’s a big difference between his character in a Tarantino film and his character in something like Paul W. S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers. Dr. Schultz is a merciless killer for sure, but he’s also incredibly noble and polite and Waltz is able to incorporate all of those contrasting ideas into his performance very well.
Finally, Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Candie’s sycophantic house slave is deeply unsettling. The film addresses a lot of seldom seen sides of the slavery industry, including an entire subculture of people who force their slaves to fight each other to the death for profit, and the idea of free black men owning their own slaves. Jackson plays Stephen, whose family has been serving the Candies for generations and thus have developed an incredible loyalty to their masters.
I appreciate that Tarantino doesn’t try to make a preachy statement about the evils of slavery, or even the necessity of equality between the races today. He wants to tell these characters’ stories during a time where tension between the races was at its height and that’s what he does. My only real criticism is that it is a long film. You won’t feel its length as much as on Inglorius Basterds, but there is a point before the climactic scene where it starts to feel like it’s stalling.
Beyond that one minor note, I must insist that you go see this film. It’s going to be a strong contender for my favorite of the year.