No one makes cooler movies than Quentin Tarantino.
In the pre-Civil War south, a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) tracks down a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to find someone who would recognize the bounties he’s chasing. The Brittle brothers are wanted criminals who used to work on the plantation that Django was just sold from, and Schultz needs them identified. After freeing Django (violently), he explains the business he’s in, and together they set out after the Brittles.
During their work together, Schultz learns that Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is still being kept as a slave (Broomhilda’s first owners were German). Partly out of compassion, and partly because Django makes a good bounty hunting partner, Schultz agrees to assist him in freeing her.
Broomhilda is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz assesses that Candie would not sell Broomhilda outright, so instead he concocts a plan where he and Django will pose as parties interested in entering into the Mandingo fighting game. Schultz will be the bankroll, and Django, a free man consulting him on his purchases. Candie has a number of slaves he uses to enter fights, and Schultz reasons that he could be approached about one of them, and then perhaps convinced to throw Broomhilda into the bargain as an afterthought. Thus the two men pose as partners hoping to scout fighters in order to enter Candie’s good graces.
When they finally arrive at Candie Land, however, the head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), smells something amiss…
Tarantino, as is his M.O., creates a film here with spellbinding dialogue scenes, punctuated with bursts of hyper violence. It’s not so much that the dialogue is memorable and quotable in the way of “Pulp Fiction”, it’s more along the lines of scenes where characters have conversations with danger lurking beneath a la “Inglourious Basterds”. One verbal misstep and a hail of bullets will fly.
Plus, of course, Tarantino has populated this world with his trademark colorful characters.
Django himself is a freed slave turned bounty hunter who’ll stop at nothing to rescue the woman he loves. He’s a crack shot with a hot temper who literally has trouble keeping his hands off of his guns during the polite conversations about slaves he’s forced to endure while posing undercover. Foxx plays him in admirably bad ass fashion. Just enough cool to get by, but with a layer of simmering anger unmistakable beneath. Waltz’s Schultz is smug and sharp. Too smart for most of the people he meets by half, and better spoken then all of them, in spite of English being his second language. He’s fine killing his bounties, but has trouble wrapping his head around the concept of slavery. Waltz plays him with his patented brand of bemusement that we’ve come to know and love since “Basterds”. Calvin Candie meanwhile is a detestable villain. Entitled and privileged, he genuinely believes and espouses the inferiority rationales revolving around slavery. DiCaprio imbibes him with a stomach churning smarm… a confidence, cheer and comfort that will disgust your sensibilities. And by his side is Samuel L Jackson’s Stephen, the turncoat to his people who’s made his own life better at the expense of others, and who’s always on the watch for the chance to do it again.
Tarantino takes these characters and puts them together in a violent play, soaked in blood and set to a cool, anachronistic soundtrack. No one sets a better tone than Tarantino, and here the tone is “Bad Ass”. Racism is pervasive and brutal, reflecting Tarantino’s stylized vision of the times. But rest assured that the table is simply being set for vengeance, Tarantino style. If ’09’s “Inglourious Basterds” was a WWII revenge fantasy, this is a Slave Era revenge fantasy with Foxx’s Django as a messenger of death for those who would enslave, sell and abuse human beings. Tarantino, of course, delivers it all with panache. Flashbacks and music and close-ups and slo mo… his inimitable flash is on full display, here, to great effect.
“Django Unchained” is the sort of pulp entertainment I wish we could get more of. Just thought-provoking enough not to be called mindless, directed with confident flair, full of fun characters engaging in polite, deadly conversations before throwing down the gloves and shooting the shit out of everything in sight. Where it will fall in my ranking of Tarantino’s oeuvre is a discussion for another day. For now, it was a wickedly entertaining film served up with style to spare.