With Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. 165 minutes.
In “Lincoln,” we witness the battle over the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in this country. However, President Lincoln’s concern was less the horrors of enslaving human beings than with ending once and for all an issue that had divided the country since its inception. In DJANGO UNCHAINED, Quentin Tarantino has his own unique take on things, and he sets his story before the Civil War so that we can see the utter brutality of the antebellum South. Movies like “Gone With The Wind” give us a much sanitized version. That isn’t Tarantino’s goal.
Of course, he’s less interested in providing a history lesson than in giving us yet another entry in a body of work that might be called: “If exploitation films had been done with big budgets and top notch casts.” We first meet Django (Jamie Foxx) as a slave, chained to other slaves en route to being resold. Their party encounters Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who presents himself as a dentist but is actually a bounty hunter. The first part of the film concerns the odd partnership Schultz and Django form, collecting money for killing wanted men. (They’re wanted dead or alive. They are always returned dead. The money is the same.)
The second half of the film is Schultz honoring a pledge to help Django reclaim his wife (Kerry Washington), who is a slave on a plantation owned by the vicious – and outwardly genteel – Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio). It is a complicated plot made more complicated by the presence of Calvin’s shuffling servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is more than he seems to be. There is much violence along the way but it’s different from, say, the current “Jack Reacher,” where a sniper shooting innocent people makes us queasy in its echoes of recent headlines. Here we are angered by the casual cruelty of the slavemasters and all too ready to cheer when these evil and reprehensible people get the ends they have wholly earned.
Even at 165 minutes, this is a film that speeds by and one gets a sense of Tarantino being fully energized. There’s none of padding of “Death Proof” (his half of “Grindhouse”) nor of the flaccid “Jackie Brown.” “Django Unchained” moves from one scene to the next and conversations that go on at length – like dinner at the ironically named plantation Candie Land – are filled with tension and layers of meaning.
Even Tarantino’s detractors are forced to admit his gift for discovering – or rediscovering – actors and giving them career-changing roles. From John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” to Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown” to Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds,” he has an eye for talent and for crafting a role for an actor. Here it’s Waltz again relishing Tarantino’s florid dialog, only this time getting to play a good guy. Foxx is good but not great as Django. He has the muscularity and the devotion to his lost wife, but he can’t quite convince us that he’s the master strategist Django turns out to be. DiCaprio, playing a rare villain, portrays his character as if he sees himself as the hero of the story, which is probably just the right attitude. To a man who orders his dogs to kill a wayward slave, it’s the folks trying to cheat him of his “property” who are bad guys.
“Django Unchained” is funny, dramatic, and very violent. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film through-and-through, and easily one of his best.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.