Mr. Tarantino spent his formative years working as a video store clerk and owns walls full of B-movie schlock he plays in his head from memory. His movies are informed by the assorted fodder that ’50s double features were made of. No wonder the films he writes and directs are a mix-and-match hybrid of the cinematic Saturday afternoon genres a lot of us grew up on, turned inside out. Last time out, his highly acclaimed Inglourious Basterds took on the Nazis in World War II Germany, disguised as campy war-movie action stars. Django Unchained takes on the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South, disguised as a spaghetti Western. Inspired by a 1966 potboiler called Django,with Franco Nero as a gunslinger caught between the Ku Klux Klan and a band of Mexican outlaws, it transfers the heroics to a slave on a mission to slice and dice every white plantation owner in the Mississippi Delta. The result is so wild you could label it an outrageous spoof of Sergio Leone, replete with Ennio Morricone music and hip-hop. Think of it as Gone With the Wind meets Shaft.
The best thing about it is the return of Christoph Waltz, the dazzling Austrian actor who won an Oscar under Mr. Tarantino’s direction as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. This time he nails the role of Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who teams up with a slave he frees named Django (Jamie Foxx). After giving him rigorous instructions on how to shoot, stab, hang and otherwise permanently maim wanted outlaws for sport and profit, Schultz enlists Django as his partner in a series of daring adventures. Armed with a slew of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters, they’re off, rounding up fugitives who rob stagecoaches and shoot up the range, splattering ketchup from the snow-capped mountains. The results are both horrible and humorous, as when they ride into town, shoot the sheriff dead, and then, on the verge of being lynched, demand a $200 reward because the man was a cattle rustler. Posing as Schultz’s valet, Django grows from a scared, illiterate man-in-rags to a cold-blooded professional assassin fitted in stylish splendor with a trademark hat while secretly nursing a plan to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the cruel horsewhip of her master, the flamboyant, dandified plantation owner, pervert and slave auctioneer Calvin Candie (an astounding Leonardo DiCaprio). From here, I predict even the most devoted Tarantino fans will recoil from the demeaning repetition of the “N” word, and some of the sadistic punishments suffered by the slaves are too painful to watch—but the intriguing part of the game is to figure out who will be left standing at the end.
To enhance the underlying lust-for-revenge theme that informs every Tarantino movie, the director has lured an uncannily gifted cast of performers to his cause. While Mr. Waltz steals the picture with his exquisite manners and withering deadpan humor, Samuel L. Jackson raises eyebrows as a poisonous, white-haired, old plantation servant. (It says volumes about Mr. Tarantino’s power that he convinced a militant activist against racism like Mr. Jackson to play a hobblin’, cussin’ Stepin Fetchit cliché.) Other amazing faces that populate the lush, pre-Civil War settings by the late J. Michael Riva as various mangy varmints: Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks, Don Johnson and even Mr. Tarantino himself. Mr. DiCaprio has a field day playing the effete, degenerate villain, puffing on a cigarette holder, waving a pinky finger and mincing his way through a Southern drawl with a mouth full of whiskey and cotton. The stretch pays off—it’s probably the closest he will ever get to playing Truman Capote.
No question about it. Django Unchained has something guaranteed to offend just about everybody. But with a bigger budget than usual to develop his ideas, Mr. Tarantino lives up to his reputation as an independent thinker and a dispenser of vibrant, thrilling ideas. This is two movies rolled into one, with enough room for one more. You just have to let it roll over you, like a bus. You never go away from a Quentin Tarantino movie bored, but you might go away from this one blighted, blasted and messed up. Who could ask for anything more?
Running Time 165 minutes
Written and Directed by
Starring Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio