Saluting the spaghetti western in his own inimitable way, Quentin Tarantino continues to merge genres while inventing a new language of cinema in Django Unchained.
Set two years before the Civil War, the film follows bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave with knowledge about a gang of outlaws that Schultz is searching for. The two become bounty-hunting partners, and after a few months Schultz gives Django his freedom so the former slave can find his missing wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). After a little detective work, the pair finds that Broomhilda was sold to a brutal plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Posing as a pair of slave traders, Django and Schultz attempt to find and purchase Broomhilda without raising the suspicions of either Candie or his loyal old house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
In his role as the senior bounty hunter, Waltz proves to be a perfect actor for Tarantino's dialogue. His crisp, lilting German accent brings out nuances in the script that would be swallowed whole by a lesser craftsman. He displays a whimsical charm while carrying out his duties with Django, then believably loses control when faced with the terror found on plantations. If nothing else, this film reminds us what a pity it is that Waltz is unable to find quality roles in Hollywood outside of his work with Tarantino.
As the hated "house nigger," Jackson reminds us of the great actor that still exists underneath all of his paycheck flicks. Playing the role of the doddering fool in public, only to show his true colors in private, it's clear that Stephen is the true brains behind Candie. Feeling no remorse in sending fellow slaves to their almost certain death in neighboring mines or terrorizing the house maids into subjugation, Jackson displays a malice that we haven't witnessed from the actor in decades.
DiCaprio makes no attempt to hide the enthusiasm he feels for playing the villainous Candie. A dandy who prefers the title "Monsieur" (even though he doesn't speak French), Candie wants to be known as the smartest man in the room. DiCaprio plays Candie with a fire we haven't seen in years. In one scene the actor haphazardly slits his hand open, and without flinching continues on with the scene, seemingly feeding off of the pain he must be feeling. Not surprisingly, that is the take that Tarantino went with.
The weakest link here is Foxx. He postures more than emotes, carrying himself as if he were starring in a music video instead of a possible award-winning film. In scenes where Django should be terrified for his life, the actor never loses the expression of a man expecting Rick Ross to provide backup at any second. The Foxx found here is more Booty Call than Collateral.
While many have complained at the length of Tarantino's films in the past, no one ever disputed that his longtime editor Sally Menke worked wonders on the his sometimes meandering projects. One of the most interesting components to Django's release was how Menke's absence, following her death in 2010, would affect the film. It's most evident in the lackluster approach to Django's back story. We're shown a man who has lived as a frightened slave his entire life, and within a couple of months he becomes "the fastest gun alive." Somewhere on a cutting room floor must lay the story of the evolution of a man from slave to avenging hero, because it can't be found here.
Clocking in at a staggering 160 minutes, we feel every second of the running time. Tarantino is a man in love with his own words, and Django's script is full of quotable lines and comedic scenes that feel out of place with the violence surrounding them. This film doesn't rank among Tarantino's finest, but it's not quite at the bottom, either. Lucky for this auteur and his fans, even his most mediocre film is much better than most directors' best work.