In a 20-year career filled with distinctive, rule-breaking films, writer-director Quentin Tarantino has consistently given actors some of their very best roles, helping John Travolta launch a comeback with “Pulp Fiction” and introducing the world to Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.” Tarantino’s latest is in some ways his boldest film, but at the same time it’s also somewhat conventional—at least by his standards. But as per norm, it’s filled with accomplished, unexpected performances.
Set during the South right before the Civil War, “Django Unchained” stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). At first, Schultz needs Django’s help tracking down some wanted men, but soon they become a team, eventually making their way to the plantation where a particularly nasty slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is holding Broomhilda captive.
With his typical provocateur’s spirit, Tarantino unabashedly dramatizes the racism of the era (complete with flamboyant use of the N-word), but he’s no tsk-tsk moralist. Instead, he forces the audience to accept the uncomfortable reality of the time period, showing the brutality that slaves faced physically and psychologically. “Django Unchained” is quite funny in spots—his gift for animated banter remains—but Tarantino establishes a world of repugnant bigotry so that we understand just how angry Django is and how determined he is to rescue his bride.
DiCaprio is pure reptilian charm as Candie, a seemingly refined man who thinks nothing of having his slaves box each other to death for his amusement. The actor has played somewhat unsavory individuals before, but Candie is his darkest, and he lets the character’s ugliness define him in ways that can be startling. Foxx and Waltz make for a fun combo, the inelegant slave and the smooth-talking bounty hunter, but one of the biggest surprises is Samuel L. Jackson as a coldly calculating slave loyal to Candie. It’s a more controlled performance than we’re used to seeing from Jackson: a coiled serpent always ready to strike.
As for “Django Unchained” as a whole, the film is less surprising from a narrative standpoint than Tarantino’s other films, lacking a fragmented time structure or segmented chapters. And the bloody action sequences, grindhouse references, and verbose characters are no longer that novel from a filmmaker who has made these elements his decades-old calling card. After breaking so many rules over his career, “Django Unchained” might almost seem quaint in comparison to his earlier works. With that said, this is still one of the most violent, stylish, and idiosyncratic movies to come out at Christmas in a long time.
Critic’s Score: B
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Casting by Victoria Thomas
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson