The western seems to be a dying breed. The most recent iterations I can think of that were any good would have to be the remake of Appaloosa or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. And while those were fantastic films they were released in 2008 and 2007 respectively; and they were remakes. Thankfully Quentin Tarantino has come along and given us western fans a truly great film that is entertaining, smart, and original.
Django Unchained follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is bought by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz buys Django because he needs him to help identify the Brittle Brothers, his latest bounty. He offers Django a proposition, if he helps Schultz track down the Brittle Brothers, he will give Django his freedom. The two quickly bond and Django confides to Schultz that he has a wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is still a slave somewhere. Feeling responsible for Django, Schultz decides to aid him in his quest to free his wife. Their quest leads them to one Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio), the owner of Candyland, one of the largest plantations in the United States. Together Django and Schultz devise a plot to enter Candyland and save Broomhilda.
People are throwing the word masterpiece around this movie like they throw cigarette butts on the ground at a Depeche Mode concert, and rightly so. Quentin Tarantino has worked his magic yet again, coming off the success of the revisionist history flick Inglourious Basterds.
One of the first things you notice as Django Unchained begins, besides the brilliant cinematography and choice soundtrack, is the incredibly smart and witty script. By now it’s something we come to expect from a Tarantino picture, but it’s still a marvel that he’s able to deliver such fantastic work time after time. Whether it’s the hilarious and fun introduction to Waltz’s Schultz, or the inane conversation that goes on in a lynch mob about the eye holes in their white hood masks, the script never loses its sharp edge.
The script also does not shy away from the evils of slavery. It’s hard to watch some of the scenes in which the white owners berate their slaves; even in a fictional setting it’s unsettling. That being said Tarantino handles it well.
The cast is brilliant in this film too. Foxx’s performance is full of both swagger and subtlety, proving once again that he is more than just another movie star (see Ray and Collateral for further evidence). Waltz is also great as Schultz. The magnetic charisma he displayed as the evil Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds is on display here, only this time he’s playing the good guy and we love him for it.
Leonardo DiCaprio is also great as the charming and evil Calvin Candy. He is able to go from cool southern gent to raging tyrant in a second and back again. It’s as natural as watching ice melt. Samuel L. Jackson also turns in a great performance as the menacing house slave Stephen, intensely loyal to his white masters. His performance reminded me a lot of an angry Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks. If you haven’t seen that show I suggest you pay more attention to Adult Swim.
Other standouts in the cast are the beautiful Kerry Washington and Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another plantation owner.
While the film is smart and well acted it is also a visual feast. Tarantino’s direction and Robert Richardson’s (JFK, Inglourious Basterds) cinematography come together to create a lot of beautiful and interesting shots. There are a lot of spaghetti western touches, though less of the Sergio Leone variety. I don’t think there was one eyeball showdown in the whole film. Either way, the film is a visual treat and another exercise in fine filmmaking.
It’s really no surprise that Quentin Tarantino has delivered yet another golden egg in Django Unchained. From the moment I saw the trailer I had no doubts as to whether this film would be a success or not. What makes it really satisfying to me is that it’s a fantastic western, and there just aren’t enough of those anymore. 5 out of 5 stars.