It’s late at night somewhere in Texas when a carriage rolls up to two slave traders transporting their merchandise. A giant molar bobs on a spring atop the carriage owned by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He’s eerily polite with a demeanor that’s both charming and off-putting and shows he can turn lethal at the drop of a hat when, once the slave traders turn hostile, he guns them down without hesitation. Waltz turns in another excellently charismatic and unpredictable performance after his star-making turn as a lunatic Nazi in “Inglourious Basterds.” It may feel a bit familiar, like a good guy version of the aforementioned character, but when an actor delivers lines of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue as well as he does, why hire anybody else? He brings lightning to the writer and director’s penned wordplay.
Schultz recruits a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) from the traders who will be able to identify one of his bounties. He may kill men for money, but he’s a man of the law. Released from servitude by Schultz, Django first flaunts his freedom by wearing a gaudy blue garment of his own choosing — but quickly learns how to take true advantage of his freedom. Feeling responsible for Django’s fate, Schultz offers to team up for the winter helping him collect his bounties. Their first adventure takes them to a plantation run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) who seems despicable but is only a mild evil compared to the horrors to come when the two take on the kingpin of the slave world.
Tarantino proves with “Django Unchained” that “Inglourious Basterds” was no artistic fluke. He’s at it again, rewriting history and delivering long overdue justice. He punished the Nazis in a twisted vision of World War II, and now he dishes out sweet vengeance on the entire slavery institution circa 1858. This is the awards season alternative to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Tarantino is recklessly irresponsible, fearless and totally in control, a risk-taker who’s a film crusader of our times. He’s styled “Django” into a spaghetti Western and blaxploitation hybrid complete with drastic camera zooms and a clamorous soundtrack. He addresses the ugly nightmare of slavery head-on with a tightrope balancing act of tragedy, farce and an absolute seriousness toward his own playfulness. It’s a knock-out, a dynamite display of pure cinematic craftsmanship that we can only expect from Tarantino, a distinctly singular creative voice in the medium.
H also knows how to savor a scene, letting his actors really chew on the sumptuous dialogue. Sequences of insanely sustained tension cultivate in the film’s latter half which takes Schultz and Django to Candy Land, a sprawling Mississippi plantation run by a human abomination named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He’s gleefully sadistic, a soulless tycoon whose favorite recreation is pitting two slaves against each other in a fight to the death. Our two heroes must enter Candie’s lair in order to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the real crux of the film’s storyline.
DiCaprio is insidious as Candie giving the facade of Southern hospitality a horrifying aftertaste. Another instance of inspired casting comes in the form of Candie’s house slave Stephen, a smiling old servant played by Samuel L. Jackson. At first you can’t help but chuckle at his appearance, but once Stephen’s conniving ways come to fruition, you suddenly can’t picture anybody else in the role.
It all leads to a showdown reminiscent of the Showdown at House of Blue Leaves from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” except instead of the Crazy 88s, we get a crazy band of rifle-toting Southern racists. And in very much the same vein as the “Kill Bill” saga, “Django” is at its core an epic revenge tale, and there’s no better filmmaker for the job. Jamie Foxx as Django, in an otherwise restrained and stoic role, gets to finally wave his flag of victory against his captors, and it’s triumphant giving Foxx the best performance of his career.
This is also arguably Tarantino’s funniest movie to date, especially with a scene involving a pseudo-Ku Klux Klan mob whining over the eye holes in their masks being poorly cut. In every waft of spontaneity, no scene ever feels out of place either. From start to bloody finish, it really is a delirious pleasure — even better than “Inglourious,” more spirited and outlandish — the most audaciously entertaining movie of 2012.