First things first, I’m an unabashed Quentin Tarantino fan. With that said, this is easily his best work, and by far his bloodiest. It’s something I’ll enjoy rewinding, watching in slow-motion over and over in the future. I count Reservoir Dogs as my single favorite film of all time, and I think it just got unseated, as Django Unchained is the ultimate Tarantino masterpiece, and I don’t see any reason why it won’t be the first Best Picture winner where penises are shot off. If you don’t know the plot by now, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to become a bounty hunter, and track down his slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
The film is the ultimate western, but it’s unfair to call it a western, really. Tarantino says it’s a “Southern”, and I have to agree there is nothing else to call it other than that. A slave revenge fantasy of the highest order, Django Unchained is a “greatest hits” of everything Tarantino has done his whole career. It’s his first period piece western, and he enjoys every second of it. He takes full advantage of the resources at his disposal, putting in more horse stunts in a single film than I’ve ever seen before, and more horse-related violence than ten classic westerns combined. Beyond the horses, bodies fly like a cartoon created by a crackhead, and that’s really what it is in the end.
We all know Tarantino loves gratuitous violence, and here he goes absolutely batshit with the squibs. There wasn’t a single CGI blood splatter that I saw, and at least 100 people had to be shot in this film, if not more. He has always defended his right to use as much violence as he wants, and he has never really fought anyone over how the bloodletting relates thematically. The thing is, it always does, and here Django has more than enough reason to do even more violence to white people as a whole than he does. He loves violence, and he loves to put it in his movies, which are nothing more than his glorified fantasies which he chooses to share with the world. And he’s the best at it, so no one can really argue with him on what he includes in his films.
There is a certain simplicity to Tarantino’s films that make them easy to follow, even when the plots are complex and constantly twisting. I’m sure some will complain that the film is more two halves than a whole, but I think the unconventional nature of how the three acts play out only adds to the film as a whole. Characters have their time, and when it’s up, it’s up.
Slavery is an interesting topic for the always controversial Tarantino to tackle, and he does it with aplomb, no apologies, the way he should. It’s what makes him a special filmmaker. There has never been anyone like him before, and there will never be anyone like him after. He has such a fetishistic approach to everything in his life that it shines through in his films. Being such a huge fan of so many types of movies, shots, genres, actors, and set pieces, he is able to pick and choose from them and slap them all together in a way that simply works. Nowhere else will you see cheesy shadow silhouettes that mean so much to the plot and characters.
Of course, since this is a Tarantino film, what really matters are the characters, they are what brings his films to life in a special way. Because of his ability to do this, he is able to attract specific talents and it’s the reason people get so excited when he does so. Christoph Waltz just enjoys the hell out of playing Schultz, and you can tell. On the same token, Leonardo DiCaprio has the time of his life tackling Calvin Candie, and just going balls out in a role that people would never expect from him. Even those that have followed the film, read the script, and watched all the trailers obsessively have no clue what they’re in for. As usual, Samuel L. Jackson does his best work for Quentin. People have come to expect this, and for whatever reason, the two just click on a level that very few actors and directors can do. It’s beyond De Niro and Scorsese level work, Jackson gives the funniest, and oddly enough, bravest, performance of his career. Others may not agree because the whole performance is a wink and a nod, but that’s what makes it so special. He’s mind-blowingly good, and he carries the second half of the film himself, somehow outshining even DiCaprio.
I’ve heard a lot said about Kerry Washington‘s performance, but I thought she was actually quite simple, and the character was given the least to do, outside of being charming. Tarantino himself shows up, and if it weren’t for his spectacular exit from the film, the role would be painful. Instead, it’s one of the funnier things in the entire film, and the fact that he looks physically horrible only adds to the twisted humor. Of course, the crazy cameos by known actors and underrated and underused actors are a Tarantino staple, so it’s a lot of fun to watch Walton Goggins, James Remar, Michael Parks, and the much-talked about Jonah Hill pop up and put their all into what amounts to small amounts of screen time. Still, the fact that he has these great actors doing tiny parts adds even more to the charm. Franco Nero‘s appearance is a huge nod to a very small slice of the audience, but those who understand and worship the man (my favorite politziotteschi actor), the corny nature of his scene is beyond brilliant.
Robert Richardson returns to shoot the film, and Tarantino has a new editor, to replace the deceased Sally Menke, who had edited every one of his previous films. However, neither one of them has a giant impact on how Tarantino works, proof that his vision is the driving force behind how the film is made. I spoke of the simplicity of his films, and just the fact that he knows when to cut, when to show faces, when to move the camera, and when to use a ridiculous zoom is what makes the film flow the way it does. Everyone else is just a technician getting him there.
I know that many will probably criticize the run time because it is a long film, but I felt there was a lot left out in the first half that only adds to everything that happens in the second half, mainly, the slow evolution of Django as a killing machine. His motivation is obvious, but the way it unfolded in the script means a lot got left on the cutting room floor (mostly Django’s “training”, and the naming of his horse) which are only small moments, but I feel they would have connected the two halves even better. Not everyone would say a 2 hour 40+ minute film would be better if it were longer, but I really hope Tarantino actually does release the long cut of this film. That may be where he was missing Sally Menke and her wisdom, where she probably just said “Quentin, leave it” in the past. Since he doesn’t have that, he indulges himself quite often, but I feel like the unrestrained nature of the plot’s unfolding is what makes it stand as his masterpiece. Yes, it’s the ultimate collection of every western fetish Quentin loves, but that’s what makes it great.
As always, the music is perfect. Being a period piece, some might be thrown by the anachronistic music, and the fact that RZA had to drop out of the scoring very quickly at the end of production may leave the music feeling disjointed in spots, but the songs by John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Rick Ross, and the insane James Brown/Tupac mash up only support the best sequences in a great film. I will not be surprised if this takes the Oscars by storm, even though it’s not the type of film the Academy typically likes, it’s just too much fun to ignore and will be something that people will want to see again. Those that don’t like it have a fundamental problem with just being able to sit back and enjoy a movie for what it is. In my opinion, this one couldn’t have been better, except if it were longer. Still, as it stands (and we can’t judge what “could have” been) the film is as perfect as movies get. Best of the year, hands down.