Quentin Tarantino creates films he wants to see. Widely known as a human film encyclopedia, Tarantino unapologetically explores uncharted narratives through the lens of genre filmmaking. Typically he infuses his films with relics from the 70’s Grindhouse features. Nonetheless, whether it’s concocting a heist film without actually showing the heist or rewriting history in Nazi occupied France, Tarantino isn’t afraid to upend expectations and masterfully blend three or four genres into one grand piece of filmmaking that hinges between hilarity and horror. Witty repartee, an eclectic soundtrack, and bloodletting are the only things one can expect from a Tarantino film. Otherwise, the maniacal Tarantino constantly breaks the mold with each new film he pushes out to the masses. His latest film, Django Unchained, once again finds him paving new ground and seamlessly blending the varying genres he grew up loving. Considering the subject on display (slavery), as well as Tarantino’s zeal for pushing the envelope, Django is unrelenting in its pursuit of reciprocity by way of the spaghetti western. Yet, for all of its explosive dialog and stylistic flourishes, Django Unchained justifies its existence with a tender love story.
By way of an impressive opening scene, Django (Jamie Foxx) finds freedom in the form of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Despite having a miniscule sense of freedom, the scars of injustice still sting Django’s soul. The lashings on his back pierce through the screen like a lighthouse in the darkness. Freedom, albeit a desired status, pales in comparison to Django’s true need: the safe presence of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Dedicated to find his wife, Django agrees to help his foreign savior track and kill three heinous slave trade brothers. In return, Django will receive Schultz’s help in tracking down Broomhilda. The duo’s adventure over the rugged, racially explosive terrain of the South finds them collecting bounties and upending the United States’ indignant behavior towards African-Americans. Django receives a level of gratification from hunting down criminals and unleashing fury on slave owners, but Broomhilda’s embrace lingers. Ultimately, she’s the only one that matters. Django inches closer to his prized possession when he discovers her current location: Candyland, a magnificent effigy to the South. Owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sleazy plantation owner that fancies himself a Francophile without speaking an ounce of French, Candyland houses Django’s final obstacle.
Schultz and Django set forth a sneaky plan to rescue Broomhilda, but knowing Tarantino’s penchant for bombastic endings, as well as the required final shootout for any Western, Django Unchained builds to a crescendo of bullets and blood in the name of love. But for as explosively entertaining as it is, Django Unchained also captures a side of slavery that films refuse to explore. From the various torture techniques employed as forms of discipline to the hierarchy of plantation life, Tarantino is cognizant of the slave trade’s sobering reality. Sure, some will question the historical accuracy in some of the grim scenes, but accurate or not, Tarantino makes us recognize the level of pain that will forever permeate through the course of time. Thankfully, Tarantino provides us with moments of levity by balancing America’s tragic past with a fantastic sense of humor which reaches its peak in a scene where Klan members passive-aggressively quibble about their inability to see out of their hoods. Perhaps it’s an obvious and easy joke, but Tarantino’s dialog makes scenes of this nature rattle and hum.
Delivering Tarantino’s signature dialog, and surrounded by his impeccably placed anachronistic songs, is a terrific cast of actors playing vibrant characters. The film’s most repulsive, uninhibited performance comes from Leonardo DiCaprio, who gallantly reaches for depravity every chance he gets. Through his tobacco stained teeth, DiCaprio continuously enrages us with his perverse wit and menacing Southern drawl. We simply love to detest to him. The same idea applies for Candie’s trusted house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson). Stephen is given unprecedented power, a notion that Jackson relentlessly pursues in shameful and conniving ways. Operating against DiCaprio and Jackson is Christoph Waltz as Schultz. Once again, Waltz charms the screen via his bilingual abilities and unmatched enthusiasm. Lest we forget, no matter how impressive the supporting players are, Django Unchained ultimately belongs to Jamie Foxx. Considering the moral and personal concessions Django makes to reach his wife, Foxx has the difficult task of justifying Django’s actions. He does so by undermining Django’s gritty, stoic exterior with an emotional longing that quietly seeps through his eyes. For as ridiculous as Django could’ve been, Foxx grounds his character just enough to make us believe in the unlikely gunslinger. And it’s in the form of this unlikely cowboy that Tarantino has crafted one of the year’s best films. Brazenly honest, ridiculously entertaining, and surprisingly romantic, Django Unchained finds Tarantino at his best when America was at its worst.