Django Unchained is yet more proof that Quentin Tarantino is good at a whole lot more than just homaging classic movies. While itself an homage to '60s spaghetti Westerns (borrowing its title from the 1966 film Django) and '70s blaxploitation, it is definitely its own beast, being a thrilling revenge movie, a gore-soaked action film, and one of the most raw and brutal depictions of pre-Civil War plantation slavery that Hollywood has dared to make. Between this and his last film, Inglourious Basterds, it is safe to say that if Tarantino was ever in a creative funk, it is now officially behind him. Once again, he has turned in one of the best films of the year.
First off, there are the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Any one of the lead actors here could have carried the film on his or her back even if the rest were awful, but fortunately, every single one of them does his or her job very well. First, there is Jamie Foxx as the eponymous slave-turned-action-hero Django (the D is silent). Starting the film as an uneducated, barely-literate fieldhand who is timid to the point of submissiveness in the presence of white people, he evolves into a crafty man who outsmarts his foes at more than one turn. Mentoring him on his journey is the German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (I just now noticed the MLK reference in his title and first name), played by Christoph Waltz in a dramatic departure from the slimy "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa in Basterds. Waltz's Schultz is charming and well-meaning, yet also quick to the draw even when it's far from the most optimal solution.
Not nearly as charming, yet who would like you to think him so, is Mister (sorry, Monsieur) Calvin Candie, the plantation owner who likes to think himself cultured and worldly yet can barely speak a word of French. Leonardo DiCaprio's Candie is such a sleazeball that I'm not surprised why Leo voiced his disgust with the character. He hits on his sister, he uses the skull of one of his late slaves as a conversation piece, and he gets his kicks watching slaves fight to the death. DiCaprio's performance is a drastic departure from the more heroic, or at least morally ambiguous, characters he's known for, yet he is at home in the role as he was in Titanic or The Departed. Matching him in menace is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's slave butler Stephen, who is the antitheses of Django -- ferociously loyal to his massuh, keeping all the other niggers (his words) in line. Jackson brings all of his usual energy to the role and makes him into a villain almost as scary as Candie, proving that he can play far more than just the Badass Muthafucka that he's known for. Lastly, Kerry Washington as Django's wife Broomhilde has relatively little screen time compared to the guys, largely playing the distressed damsel that Django and Schultz are out to rescue from the castle of Candieland. However, the emotions that she is required to display -- terror, shock, pain, love -- she does well, making me root for her rescue.
On the writing and directing front (the two are inseparable whenever Tarantino is involved), the film shines. Taking most of its cues from spaghetti Westerns of decades past, this film is violent and bloody, with shootouts that paint the walls and the cotton fields in a fine red mist. The soundtrack combines classic Western cues with modern-day rap and R&B to create something that is deliberately anachronistic and complements the action on screen quite well. The characters' schemes are intelligent, yet fall apart realistically when the logical flaws in them are poked out. The third act keeps on topping itself on the action front, with shootouts that each get more hectic than the last. As characteristic of Tarantino's films, there is also a ton of very dark comedy, with my favorite being a scene explaining the origins of the Ku Klux Klan's notorious uniforms.
Most importantly, though, the film refuses to tiptoe around its subject matter. Unlike other films that attempt to gloss over or mitigate America's original sin in order to paint the antebellum South in a more positive light and thus not piss off Confederate apologists (*cough*Gonewiththewind*cough*), this one dives straight in and depicts all of the brutality that, in real life, went on at thousands of different plantations throughout the South and the Caribbean. Slaves are lashed, branded, chased down with dogs, separated from their lovers, locked in "hot boxes", threatened with castration, sold to more brutal owners for disobedience, and (if female) raped, and with the exception of the rape, nearly all of it is shown in graphic detail. The few slaves lucky enough to work in the house like Stephen rather than out on the fields are the only ones who get off easy -- and even then, that is relative. The only thing that Tarantino really embellished was the mandingo fighting, and even then, the fact that I was able to believe that stuff like that went on goes to show just how awful everything else was.
I will also note that the film uses period-appropriate language, and by that, I mean that the characters, black and white, say "nigger" like it was going out of style. However, that was how people in that part of the country spoke back then, and the word is used chiefly by antagonists in order to demonstrate just why they're antagonists. I saw this movie in a packed house with a crowd that had to have been at least half black, and they all understood this. If you keep in mind the context in which the word is used when you hear it in this film, you shouldn't be offended.
Score: 5 out of 5
Tarantino kicks ass again! This is a frequently humorous, yet still pitch dark, Western revenge thriller that stands as some of QT's best work to date, with some of the most vicious gunplay I've ever seen and a long-overdue treatment of subject matter that Hollywood really should've tackled a long time ago. As 2012 ends, I can say that Django Unchained is one of the best movies of the year.