In the lead up to the release of “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino has often discussed the future of his film career, as he hopes to leave the industry on a high note and never reach a point of diminishing returns. With the release of
his eighth directorial outing — a love letter to the spaghetti western that becomes so much more than a mere homage — Tarantino delivers one of his sharpest works. A raucous time, “Django” is a darkly hysterical revenge tale and a quintessential Tarantino film.
Working to “Django’s” benefit is that nearly every facet of the film impresses on its own and as part of the whole. The film tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is rescued by Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is a dentist by day but bounty hunter by night. Schultz requires Django’s assistance with arresting the Brittle Brothers, who, among other atrocities, captured Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
The story expands beyond this simple manhunt, but this ambition produces both one of the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Tarantino often puts revenge at the heart of his tales, and while “Django” is no different, it strives to cover far more ground. Django’s ultimate quest to save the love of his life is a comprehensive journey that bonding time with Schultz, the search for the Brittles and a showdown at the estate of the menacing plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
While this tale includes tremendous moments of emotional resonance, hilarity and engaging action, it is a long one, and that length is periodically noticeable. The film never drags for long, but clocking in at over two and a half hours, the amount of plot could be too much for some viewers, as the Brittles and Candie narratives feel as if they could have been their own films.
If the length does not prove to be an issue, however, then “Django” is a wealth of riches at every turn. Much of the film’s success comes from the impeccable casting. DiCaprio is wonderful as the sadistic Candie, and with Waltz’s performance, the actor officially joins the ranks of Tarantino’s favorite stars.
Among the director’s familiar cast is the film’s most welcome surprise — Samuel L. Jackson, who electrifies in his best role since Jules in “Pulp Fiction.” His turn as Stephen, Candie’s master slave and confidant, is malicious, vindictive and almost as menacing as his owner. Like Waltz, Jackson seems destined to embody Tarantino’s writing.
To complement the inspiring acting of Tarantino’s dialogue is an excellent soundtrack. The use of modern rap as the score during a former slave’s attack on a plantation could fall on the wrong side of irony, but Tarantino perfectly picks his moments . During a final-act shootout, the audience cannot help but cheer as Django guns down foes to a mash-up of James Brown’s “The Payback” and 2Pac’s “Untouchable.”
Of course, these strengths would be moot points if the central romance between Django and Broomhilda was unbelievable. Even though they share little screen-time together, Foxx and Washington make every moment count. His cool attitude and her innocence create beautiful chemistry, and Django’s motives are made clear with their every interaction.
But underneath the great performances, stunning visuals and exciting soundtrack “Django” is still a film about slavery. Tarantino is uncompromising in his portrayal of this country’s past shame, and this visceral depiction may certainly make audiences occasionally squirm. Yet this only empowers “Django Unchained” as another great alteration of history, much in the vein of “Inglorious Basterds.” Never failing to impress, Tarantino successfully combines the horrors of slavery with his trademark ear for dialogue in one of this year’s best films.
Jonathon Dornbush is a senior editor. Josh Johnson is music editor. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.