Twenty years after bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino has crafted one of his finest films. Django Unchained is a sprawling, epic, hilarious and unapologetically controversial film that reaffirms Tarantino’s status as one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Don’t take these words as the ravings of an overzealous fanboy either. I freely admit that Pulp Fiction is my favorite film and it’s undeniable that I expected to love this film, but I didn’t expect it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that 1994 masterpiece. Yet, even twenty years into his career, Tarantino continues to stretch his creative boundaries as a filmmaker and has made one of his most ambitious films and certainly one of his most cinematic.
The film’s opening scene, with large red credits recalling ‘70s spaghetti westerns, shows a scope not often seen in Tarantino’s films. The sweeping cinematography by Robert Richardson is often expansive and always beautiful, but playful in its use of cheap and intentionally unintentional-looking zooms. As the film opens, a group of shackled slaves are being led by the Speck Brothers (James Remar and James Russo) across terrain somewhere in Texas. In the woods they come upon Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter looking to acquire a slave who can help him identify men known as the Brittle Brothers. Here he finds Django (Jamie Foxx), whom he frees under the condition that Django helps him identify the brothers. After the two strike up a partnership, Schultz agrees to assist Django in finding his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom they later confirm has been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the sadistic owner of a large plantation called Candyland. The two devise a plan to infiltrate Candyland under the guise of wanting to purchase one of the slaves Candie has trained to fight in gladiator-like matches to the death. Arriving at Candyland, they are compromised by the watchful eye of Candie’s house-slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a ruthless and conniving character whose penchant for evil rivals Candie’s own.
The film’s massive cast boasts several impressive performances and cameos that include a hilarious Don Johnson and the appearance of familiar faces like Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Tarantino himself, and Franco Nero (who played Django in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western Django). These appearances certainly lend to the film’s greatness, but it’s the lead roles by Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson that make the biggest impressions. Foxx assumes the persona of Clint Eastwood from the Dollars trilogy and is much more subdued than his scene-stealing and scenery-chewing co-stars, but it’s difficult to picture anyone else playing Django so well. Before the film was even released, many foresaw DiCaprio finally winning an Oscar for his role. He does give a performance unlike anything he’s done before; it’s a role he clearly relishes the opportunity to play and, in one scene involving a lengthy monologue and a hammer, he mesmerizes. As great as he is, Waltz and Jackson give him some stiff competition for the Oscar. Waltz burst into the public consciousness with his iconic Oscar-winning role as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Dr. Schultz is a far cry from Landa, but Waltz is just as brilliant and it’s hard not to hang on his every word when he’s onscreen. Jackson, giving his best performance since Pulp Fiction, makes a hilarious first impression before showing Stephen to be more contemptible of a villain that DiCaprio’s benighted Calvin Candie. Tarantino’s always demonstrated a knack for casting and getting terrific performances out of his actors, but this may have his greatest wall-to-wall performances since Jackie Brown.
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s first excursion into the Western genre, but he’s made it a point to call it a ‘Southern.’ This seems more appropriate as it has many characteristics of the Western genre while being unlike anything the genre has offered before. The film is uproariously funny, likely the funniest film he’s made, but it’s also horrifying in the way it doesn’t shy from the horrors of slavery. Tarantino shows all of the horrors from this period of American history in brutal, unflinching detail while still injecting his dry sense of humor and love of cartoonish violence without disrespecting the subject matter. I believe Tarantino was robbed of an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds screenplay, but with the number of memorable scenes and clever, quotable dialogue he’s packed into this film; he should be a lock for that award. Howard Hawks once said that a “good movie” was constituted by “three great scenes, no bad ones.” There are no bad scenes in Django Unchained and there are much more than three great ones. Even more impressive is how some scenes function so well despite being markedly different from other scenes tonally. In one scene we’re shown an early pre-cursor to the KKK; a large group of men wearing flour sacks on their heads. As the leader maps out their plan to ambush Schultz and Django, complaints arise about the men’s inability to see out of the flour sacks. This argument goes on for a few minutes and is one of the most hilarious scenes Tarantino has written, and it’s not the only hilarious scene here. With a 165 minute running time, some will find Django Unchained a bloated exercise in cinematic excess. I find it near-perfect. In nearly three hours I never felt a sliver of boredom or the sense that Tarantino was allowing his excess to get in the way of his editing. Say what you will about Tarantino’s artistic credibility; the man is one hell of an entertainer.
The overall look of Django Unchained recalls spaghetti westerns, grand epics a la Gone with the Wind, and the exploitation films Tarantino adores. It’s his most cinematic film in that its brilliance isn’t confined merely to characters and dialogue. This is a beautiful film to behold and he knew it would be too. His films rarely put much emphasis on the setting, but the Deep South is almost a silent character here. Here, Tarantino employs not just uncanny writing talent but a grand cinematic vision. This film will certainly be on the shortlist for awards in Best Cinematography and Art Direction. It looks timeless.
There has been controversy over the use of the ‘n-word,’ a complaint leveled at Tarantino all the way back to Jackie Brown. It is startling to hear the word used so often by white and black actors in a mainstream Hollywood movie and, as you’ve no doubt heard, it is used a lot. But the film does take place two years before the Civil War at a time when slavery and anti-black sentiment was commonplace. It would be disingenuous for him to gloss over the usage of it. Would some say he uses it excessively? Absolutely and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it never feels like it’s being used inappropriately or just for show. This is a brave film that touches on subjects Hollywood and America tend to gloss over. Tarantino made the right choice in portraying these subjects to the extreme.
Even at nearly 3 hours, I wanted to see Django Unchained immediately after it ended. It’s such a powerful, fun, and bitingly adroit film that succeeds masterfully as grand art and epic entertainment. I’d require a couple more viewings to objectively say where exactly it stands in Tarantino’s oeuvre, but I feel comfortable proclaiming it to be his best film since Pulp Fiction. While I hesitate to so vigorously proclaim a film’s brilliance to such an extent upon my first impression, I can say with no hesitation that Django Unchained is undoubtedly the best film of the year.
-Written by Guest Reviewer Josh Miller