Instead of tackling the sensitive topic as a reverent and grounded drama, the director, Quentin Tarantino, (in typical Tarantino fashion) positioned his pre-abolition revenge flick as stylized genre fare – specifically a spaghetti western. Tarantino’s follow-up to the widely successful and critically acclaimed Nazi-killing business flick, Inglourious Basterds, once again sees the fan-favorite filmmaker take-on a controversial historical subject: this time American slavery.
Does anyone really remember the names of the Tarantino movies? Nah, we just call them, "that one Tarantino movie with all the blood"
Several thematic points are a little on-the-nose, even for a not-so-subtle writer like Tarantino, and a few unrestrained filmmaking choices distract from an otherwise immersive revenge tale.
Tarantino drew inspiration from Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci, especially his exceedingly violent 1966 film Django (about a man hunting his wife’s killer), in an effort to present the horrors of slavery with entertaining revenge fantasy irreverence. Does Tarantino successfully balance the intended historical insight with his usual stylistic influence and embellishment?
Recently freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), joins with German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in the business of killing bad people for money. Schultz recruits Django to help collect the bounty on the vicious (and especially hard-to-find) Brittle Brothers - promising to assist the former slave in a quest to rescue his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) from one of the wealthiest and most dangerous plantation owners in the deep south, Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Like many Tarantino films, Django Unchained wallows in the joy of vengeance (especially in a blood-soaked third act).
The story plays to the director’s strengths, mixing savage and violent altercations with moments of light-hearted humor and sharp conversations between multilayered characters – framed with striking imagery. The early interactions between Schultz and Django, where the Doctor helps the former slave adjust to life as a free man, keep things light until the audience is fully immersed in the horrors of the time period – most notably Candie’s enjoyment of Mandingo-like slave-on-slave fighting.
DiCaprio, as expected, brings a captivating blend of charisma and malevolence to slave-owning Candie. He’s a complicated villain, brought to life by a great performance, that will be right at home with similar Tarantino creations: the aforementioned Landa as well as Bill (the Kill Bill series) and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction), among others.
A ruthless and self-absorbed man, complacent in his tyranny, Candie is further fleshed-out through his relationship with house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a character that Django views as the most contemptible villain in the movie. Along with Jackson, there’s a host of recognizable stars that shine in smaller support roles (including Washington as Broomhilda, M. C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, and even Don Johnson as ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett).
However, despite its overall success, Django Unchained is easily one of Tarantino’s most unbalanced films – as the narrative often lingers on scenes that don’t carry much weight in the larger storyline – while moments that should carry strong emotional punch come up short.