Off the chain
Tarantino delivers furiously engaging quasi-western
The new extravaganza from Quentin Tarantino is one of his best, and—even allowing for the habitual sideswipes of rambunctious crudity—that makes it one of the liveliest and most pungent entertainments of the past year.
It’s ostensibly a western about a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who track down miscreants from the slave trade while also seeking to liberate the latter’s still-enslaved wife. Much of the action, however, takes place not in the Wild West but rather in the pre-Civil War South, and the central settings are big plantations owned by swaggering grandees (Don Johnson in the first instance, Leonardo DiCaprio in the second and more consequential one).
Here, as in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has concocted another of his rambunctiously dynamic mashups, mixing disparate genres (the spaghetti western and the blaxploitation melodrama, in this case) and putting them at the service of a convulsive revenge fantasy set in historical circumstances of a particularly grievous and volatile sort. It’s partly a spaghetti-western homage/pastiche with an African American in the gunfighter/avenger role and partly a rambunctious inversion of the sentimental Old South/Gone with the Wind historical romance.
Even with a 165-minute running time and the occasionally flimsy detour of plotting, Tarantino’s playful flair for storytelling is running full tilt the whole way. The filmmaker’s characteristic mix of wry, deceptively casual dialog scenes and abrupt explosions of violence works especially well when Waltz’s character is part of the action.
The picture’s picaresque/tragicomic brilliance dwindles somewhat in almost any scene in which the Waltz character is not a factor, but Django Unchained never really loses its furiously engaging momentum. Digressive detours and abrupt shifts in tone are part of the Tarantino deal, as usual, and they’re part of the yarn-spinning fun here, too.
The German-born Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) is a bounty hunter who travels in the guise of an itinerant dentist. An educated man with a sly and genial manner, he is the pivotal character in the story and the most thoroughly developed in terms of Tarantino-style paradoxes, moral and otherwise. Foxx is very good in the title role, but his character (named in honor of a distinctive series of spaghetti westerns) is more interesting early on, and less so when the generic requirements of the revenge plot begin to take precedence.
DiCaprio is very good in the key villain role, which is another of the film’s distinctively well-written parts. (Johnson’s part is similar but smaller and less nuanced.) Samuel L. Jackson has the other plum, Tarantino-esque role—an ironic Uncle Tom/house slave given to ferocious bloviations. Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda, the poetically idealized wife of Django, is the only other standout part.