Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent, darkly humorous, and expertly directed spin on the spaghetti western called "Django Unchained" is an odd release for the holidays, but it has plenty of giddy pleasures for you to unwrap regardless. Set two years before the Civil War, the main crux of the story involves a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is purchased (then freed) by a bounty hunter dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two join forces in order to go about collecting the bounty on a number of America's "Most Wanted" with the promise that when spring arrives Schultz will help Django find his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated during a slave auction.
While this is a relatively slim set-up, Tarantino fills his two hour-and- 45 minute running time with his usual crafty banter and a plethora of striking characters, many of whom are played by TV-western veterans. They include Don Johnson ("Nash Bridges") as a racist plantation owner named Big Daddy, Lee Horsely ("Matt Houston") as a local Sheriff, and Tom Wopat ("Dukes of Hazzard") as a U.S. Marshall. There are also blink-or-you'll-miss-them cameos from Jonah Hill, Russ Tamblyn (and his daughter Amber), Ted Neeley (the original "Jesus Christ Superstar") and horror special effects wizard Tom Savini (who coincidentally, is in another Oscar buzz film this year - "The Perks of Being a Wallflower.")
Of course there’s also Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, a plantation owner who owns Mandingo fighters as well as numerous slaves and whores. Playing against type, DiCaprio surprisingly sells this character as his scenes get progressively threatening. Not only that, he looks as though he’s having the time of his life.
As usual, Tarantino fills his film with memorable characters and quotable dialogue. There is a scene with a hooded gang bent on killing Dr. Schultz and Django that is probably one of the most hilarious sequences I have seen in years. He keeps the storyline fresh and zippy and doesn’t ever let up on the violence and humor that interweaves like a bloody latticed doily. As is usual for Tarantino, his films are so unexpected and fresh, you never quite know where he’s going with them.
I’ll admit, this film started to feel a bit too lengthy and just when you thought it was over, it continues. The good news is that it’s also incredibly satisfying by film’s end, which makes the length worth it. I would be remiss to mention that the excessive and cartoonish violence takes on a slightly different feel in light of the tragic events in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. There probably wasn’t one person in the audience that didn’t think about that day as the bloody mayhem unraveled onscreen. It makes for some uncomfortable moments and might bring up a discussion on the difference between violence for story-effect and violence for shock and humor.
Tarantino clearly uses his whacked out viciousness for comedic effect, but that brings up the "are we numbing people to the horrors of violent acts when we are asked to laugh at it?" I’m not sure of the answer and its possible audiences might not be able to stomach it when the events are still fresh.
But in its defense, it is a well-crafted and written film with terrific performances all around. Foxx is appropriately unobtrusive and commanding as the title character, bringing a gravitas to the role without being cocky. Waltz is his usual hilarious self, delivering his lines with a sly smile and a cheeky whimsy. Supporting characters also excel even in roles that only offer them a few lines.
The cinematography by Robert Richardson is epic in scope and skillfully framed calling to mind the genre Tarantino is referencing, but giving it a modern feel. Costume design by Sharen Davis and Production Design by J. Michael Riva are all note-worthy and should be remembered come Oscar time. Lastly, the soundtrack is pretty bad-ass and uses classics like "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce and "Unchained" by James Brown, along with newer (also) anachronistic tracks like "Too Old To Die Young" by Brother Dege and "Acora Qui" by Italian pop singer Elisa. All add to the humor and spectacle of another Tarantino masterpiece well worth seeing if you don’t mind buckets of blood, a mess of foul language, and a script rich with side-slitting dialogue. It’s everything you’d expect from our boy Quentin.