As far as I'm concerned, there is no better writer in Hollywood than Quentin Tarantino, and few directors are his equal. His flair for dialogue is unmatched, even by the rapid fire words of Aaron Sorkin, and his uniquely dark sense of humor permeates everything he does, no matter how reprehensible the subject matter.
His latest opus, Django Unchained, is the second of his revisionist history films. The bar was raised mighty high by his last film, Inglourious Basterds, the story of a group of Jewish American soldiers seeking vengeance against Hitler during World War II. It was, in my opinion, a masterpiece and his best film to date. I love it so much, I have a framed 27x40 lobby poster in my home theater, proudly displayed next to other favorite films of mine including Star Wars, Blade Runner, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Dark Knight.
It's nearly impossible to top Basterds, but my expectations for every Tarantino film are always high and I've never been truly disappointed. Even the comparably dull Death Proof, Tarantino's half of the Grindhouse double-feature, features his signature dialogue and one of the most amazing, not to mention lengthy, car chases ever filmed. From the first time I saw the trailer, I knew Django Unchained might not necessarily exceed my expectations, but it would undoubtedly meet them.
Boy, did it.
Take, for instance, an early scene in the film featuring Don Johnson and Jonah Hill as early Klansmen attempting to lead a raid against Schultz and Django, who recently collected the bounty on three men while on Big Daddy's (Johnson) plantation. Much to their chagrin, they have tremendous difficulty seeing through the eyeholes in the crude sacks they use to mask their faces. An argument ensues with lots of finger pointing and vulgarity, and it's all hysterical. It mocks the KKK as cowards who hide behind their masks, but in a subtle way, and portrays them as little more than ignorant rednecks.
Other times, the proceedings are deadly serious - as well they should be. Flashbacks of Broomhilda being whipped in front of her husband, watching slaves brutalize each other for the amusement of their owner, or watching dogs turned loose on a slave who tried to escape is no laughing matter, but a sad, sickening reminder of the awful deeds committed upon blacks in the late 1800s and beyond.
Still other times, the movie revels in its theme of vengeance. Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy, in which Tarantino gives power and dignity back to those who were wronged - or at least one of them. Foxx's Django makes some hard choices throughout the film - particularly to remain silent and watch horrible things happen to his fellow men and women or blow his and Shultz's clever ruse as slave traders looking to buy a fighter from Candie - but the payoff is a spectacle of violence that will have viewers hooting and hollering as the same scum pay for their earlier transgressions.
I said few directors are Tarantino's equal, and the proof is always in the performances of his actors. He took the relatively unknown Samuel L. Jackson and turned him into a leading man and resurrected John Travolta's utterly dead career with Pulp Fiction. He cast blaxploitation star Pam Grier in the leading role of his next film, Jackie Brown, which also saw Robert Forster nominated for an Oscar. Most recently, Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his performance as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
This time out, not only does Waltz give another stunningly good performance, he manages to make Jamie Foxx, whose early career was mostly comedy-related, a bonafide badass bounty hunter. Django is smart, strong-willed, and lethal. Most importantly, he's easy to root for, especially when he comes face to face with DiCaprio's Calvin Candie.
I've been a fan of DiCaprio's since his unforgettable performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, but I can't recall seeing him play a role quite like this one. Calvin Candie is evil to the core, and DiCaprio turns on every ounce of charm he has to play him as a man who believes himself a saint. For all the southern hospitality on display, there isn't an ounce of likeability in Candie. There's no chance for redemption. Tarantino doesn't go for cop outs like that, where the bad guy suddenly has an epiphany, a change of heart, and recants all his evils in his dying moments. Candie is despicable to the last, and all the moreso when paired with his faithful servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Stephen is an entirely different kind of evil - a black house slave who has ostensibly been brainwashed by his master's perceived kindness. Though he is still a servant, catering to Candie's every whim, he seems to believe he is his equal and, as such, that other blacks are as beneath him as they are Candie himself. It's a daring character for an actor of color, one that Jackson has even received some undue criticism for, and unlike any he's ever played, but his performance is on par with the best work he's ever done.
The film's furious finale explodes into an orgy of violence that should come as no stranger to those familiar with Tarantino's work, and is almost as satisfying as watching Eli Roth turn Hitler's face into Swiss cheese in Inglourious Basterds. The only thing left to wonder about is what the future holds for Django. Over the course of the film's near three hour running time, I found I had grown to care about this character more than any in Tarantino's lexicon, perhaps because it's one of the few times a film has had a single, central character to focus on.
Perhaps the true genius of the film is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a western with a black lead character. Anyone who has seen westerns before knows its a genre where blacks, Indians, and people of other races are typically portrayed as villains while a great white hero rides in and saves the day. Django Unchained turns the genre upside down in an almost mocking fashion, placing Foxx in a role similar to those played by film icons like John Wayne with white ne'er-do-wells on the wrong end of the gun this time.
It's unlikely any Tarantino picture will top Basterds as my personal favorite, but Django Unchained further cements his legacy as one of the most talented filmmakers working today. This is easily one of the best films of 2012, second only to The Grey on my personal list. It works on multiple levels, shifting between black comedy, a revenge-driven action-western, and a chilling reminder of a very ugly and saddening part of American history.