Just as 2012 winds down and just when you thought you had seen all the best films of the year, enter movie mastermind Quentin Tarantino, whose latest, Django Unchained, hits you like a shock of pure cinematic adrenaline. Even at a whopping 165 minutes, this Blaxploitation revenge western flies by, taking you on a journey that’s rip-roaringly hilarious and unrelentingly gruesome. Honestly, I haven’t had more fun at the movies all year. With a dynamite ensemble and a famed director at the top of his game, Django Unchained is some kind of Christmas miracle, a balls-to-the-walls, bat shit crazy, out of control, and over the top spectacle that kicks your mind and body into manic over drive. Just writing about it here is enough to make me jittery. If you are in any way a fan of Tarantino and his extraordinary work, from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, than what the hell are you waiting for? In Tarantino terms, Django is damn perfect.
The multi-talented Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django, a slave who is freed under the watchful eye of the wisecracking bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (a fiery Christoph Waltz). Together, the two create a buddy cop chemistry that is infectious, and if Django can help Schultz gain his latest bounty, than Schultz will help Django rescue his wife, the gorgeous Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose under the sadistic ownership of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). To dive any further into the plot would be a huge disservice, for this badass beast of a movie packs a ton of shocks and surprises you won’t see coming. To say I was jaw dropped several times is a huge understatement; buckle up, folks, this ferocious story packs punches that will knock you out in a blackout of cinematic joy.
What you can already expect, however, are sensational performances, and Django continues the year’s great trend of riveting ensemble casts. Though Foxx has the least showiest role, the Oscar winning actor makes Django’s arc from quiet slave to red headed revenger truly great, and the moment where he rides off for one last climactic showdown feels as triumphant as it should, heightened by a sizzling and funky John Legend track. Naysayers will complain that Foxx gets lost for much of the beginning and middle, but who wouldn’t when standing next to the genius that is Christoph Waltz. The last time Waltz collaborated with Tarantino (on Inglourious Basterds) he won an Oscar, and here he is just as brilliant; honestly, Waltz was born to read Tarantino dialogue, and he dips each line in a twisted sense of haughty hilarity and wide-eyed wackiness that is somehow charming and entrancing. Whenever Waltz is on screen, you can’t look away. Though Kerry Washington doesn’t have much to do as Django’s battered wife, she’s unshakeable in quick moments of quiet horror. There’s also Samuel L. Jackson in his best performance in ages; as Stephen, the overseer of Candie’s plantation, Jackson is sinisterly bug-eyed and executes many of the film’s most insane surprises.
As all the trailers have suggested, though, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio who is the Tarantino titan here. As the crazed Calvin Candie, DiCaprio fires on cylinders I never thought he could. With greasy hair and grungy teeth masking that handsome face, Tarantino turns our perception of DiCaprio on its head, and in the film’s juiciest role, DiCaprio terrifies. From his nonchalant line readings to the pure pleasure that sizzles in Candie’s eyes during moments of gruesome slave-related violence, DiCaprio stuns – he’s darkly humorous, flamboyantly nuts, and psychotically seductive. DiCaprio has long been everyone’s favorite but, my god, he is revelatory here, delivering a performance that confirms he is one of the best working actors around. Luckily, Candie also has the best monologue of the film – a truly inspired rant on skulls, slaves, and dimples – and DiCaprio nails it. What more can I say? A Best Supporting Actor list without his name on it is a Best Supporting Actor list that’s incomplete and worthless.
It is ultimately Tarantino and his passion for movies and filmmaking that steal the show. Surprised? Hell no! As a cinephile like myself, no one makes movies as dense and meaty as Tarantino, the original meta man who knows how to spin an entertainingly original tale while also honoring, satirizing, and/or mocking film history. Tarantino’s awareness of genre, stock characters, and film trends fill every frame and every line of dialogue in the movie and it’s extraordinary to behold. From the corny one-liners and unpredictable zaniness (all ripped from the Blaxploitation era) to the gorgeous landscapes and gritty close-ups (all inspired from the great westerns of Sergio Leone, a favorite of Tarantino’s), Django is a love letter to cinema that only Tarantino could assemble. The graphic-novel look and feel of Kill Bill has long made that two-part samurai masterpiece my favorite Tarantino film, and that’s much of the reason I fell in love with Django. With quick cuts and jarring zooms, plus heightened sound mixing that makes the punches thud, the guns boom, and the cigars crackle, Django feels like a dark and sinister comic book brought to flashy life on screen and it’s completely dazzling.
What more can I say? Probably a lot, since Tarantino makes movies you can chew on for days, months even; I haven’t even mentioned that incredible soundtrack (the corny western songs that open the film are nostalgically perfect), the gut busting cameos (Jonah Hill is quite memorable as a bumbling member of the KKK), or the absolutely insane shoot-outs that send blood flying in every direction (think the Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill, only in color this time!), but all of those make up the many surprises that await you in this slam-bam work of art. I can’t gush any further. Go see Django, it’s further proof of the mastery that is Quentin Tarantino.
Review by Zack Sharf