Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a gloriously demented hybrid of the Spaghetti Western and the ’70s blaxploitation flick, about a freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who teams with benevolent bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) to track high-value baddies through the pre-Civil War South. This being a Tarantino flick, the violence and profanity are laid on thick, and the film gleefully thumbs its nose at the hazy line denoting the bounds of good taste. Django is also one of the most thrilling and entertaining movies I’ve seen in the last few years.
A movie in two halves, Django first follows the unchained ex-slave as he learns the bounty hunter trade (“A different kind of skin game,” as Schultz calls it) and delightedly guns down sadistic white folk (including Miami Vice’s Don Johnson in a solid cameo) across the South. The second half of the film concerns a trip to Mississippi where Django and Schultz hope to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from her owner, the vile plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie is a slave-fighting aficionado (we first meet him as he watches a fight to the death — right in his living room!), a fact Django and Schultz hope to exploit in tricking Candie into selling them Broomhilda.
While I won’t get into specifics, I will say that I’m not entirely sold on the convoluted plot of the second half of the movie, which hangs on Django and Schultz pulling a long con on Candie that seems ill-conceived and fit only to provoke a film-climaxing slaughter — which, of course, it does. Django’s bravura finale evokes the majestic carnage of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and may be too much to take for some viewers, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school massacre.
In fairness to Tarantino, the violent bits are handled with skill and careful misdirection (you never see as much as you think), and there’s a definite cartoon bent to all the gunplay. That said, the most disturbing scene in Django doesn’t even involve a gun — and I haven’t been able to shake it for days. Consider yourself warned.
Like most of Tarantino’s filmography, Django benefits from a bevy of fine performances, a crackerjack script full memorable dialogue, and spot-on direction and cinematography. While the acting is uniformly excellent, and Jamie Foxx does an admirable job in the title role, it’s the supporting cast that really kills here. I’m talking about DiCaprio, who pushes into darker territory than any of his previous work and brings fresh menace to the villainous Candie; Waltz, who provides the film’s moral center and is just as good here as he was in Inglourious Basterds, a performance for which he won an Oscar; and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Candie’s head house slave and makes for a delicious co-villain that’s far afield from the standard “bad muthafucka” he’s known for playing.
Django Unchained makes interesting hay out of the societal degradation that a system like slavery creates. That Tarantino’s deep thoughts are kept secondary to producing a satisfying blood-soaked exploitation film says more about the director than it does about slavery or race relations. Movies like this demand discussion afterward, but whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Django is pulsing with more wit and energy than almost any other film this year.