Quentin Tarantino off the hook in ‘Django Unchained’
How much can Quentin Tarantino get away with?
Opening titles, theme song, character names, camera shots, even plot points that, shall we say, remind us of previous films? Not a problem! Tarantino freely admits he’s been influenced by hundreds if not thousands of films he’s seen, from the classic to the seriously obscure.
Cheerfully gratuitous violence, designed to make us cringe or even laugh? Yes, because even in these deeply troubled times, we can distinguish the difference between cartoonish R-rated movie blood and the horrors we see too often on the evening news.
OK, then. How about Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of other actors liberally spraying the n-word about, perhaps more often than in any mainstream film ever made? We’re all right with that?
In a word: yes. More on that later.
Some of us hopped on the Tarantino bandwagon in the early 1990s, and we stayed on board, even through those dicey times when QT seemed more interested in becoming a personality than a filmmaker. (Remember his turn as McKenas Cole on the TV show “Alias”? Me, neither.) Now, two decades after pinning our ears back with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” the great Tarantino continues to share his love of movies by delivering terrific entertainment that’s equal parts homage and original pop art. With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino gives us an American spaghetti Western that’s a bloody good time from start to finish. (The title is inspired by the 1966 spaghetti Western “Django,” starring Franco Nero, who appears in “Django Unchained” and has a short scene with the film’s hero, clad in a lime green jacket inspired by Little Joe’s attire in “Bonanza.”)
With a soundtrack featuring everything from deliberately derivative originals to “Freedom” by Richie Havens to yes, “I Got a Name,” by Jim Croce, “Django Unchained” (and yes, the “D” is silent) might be too self-aware for some moviegoers, but I love its darkly comedic tone. And make no mistake, though the violence is exceedingly graphic, especially during one momentous shootout, this is also one of the funniest movies of the year.
Perched like a king atop his horse, wearing tinted frames, Jamie Foxx is pure badass as the former slave known as Django. He’s now a partner with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter with peculiar German-accented English that makes him sound equal parts fop and mercenary.
Nobody this side of Anthony Hopkins delivers a monologue with more panache than Waltz. It’s a great performance. With his amazing line readings and his quietly intense charisma, Waltz is becoming my favorite go-to character actor, a slightly younger, Euro version of Christopher Walken. Even the names are similar!
Django and Schultz rack up the kills as they make their way to a daring and quite possibly suicidal mission to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington).
So we’re pretty deep into the blood and guts of the story before we meet Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a plantation owner who fancies himself a sophisticate but is pure sadistic animal underneath the trappings. His loyal sidekick, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), is a slave who enjoys all the trappings of top-tier, in-house butlerdom because he has completely sold out his black brothers and sisters. It’s a brilliant, brave performance by Jackson, taking on a hateful character with a seemingly infinite reserve of self-loathing.
“Django Unchained” crackles with energy in the final hour, whether it’s in the extended dinner table sequence in which Candie wheels and deals with Django and Schultz, or the inevitable orgy of bullets that plays like a Western variation of the classic confrontation in the Tarantino-penned “True Romance.”
Whether you’re marveling at Tarantino’s musical choices, trying to guess the identity of yet another vaguely familiar face in a supporting role — hello, Ted Neely! — or grimacing while chuckling at the audaciously violent confrontations, it’s thrilling cinema.
Set in 1858 and in the world of slavery, “Django” might well contain more use of the n-word than any film ever — 110 references, according to some reports. (That’s still about a hundred times fewer than in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”) Nearly every character — black or white, male or female — casually tosses off the word. Even as we’re plunged into Tarantino’s stylized 19th century world, it’s hard not to flinch when you hear a likable actor such as DiCaprio saying the word again and again. And again.
It’s easy to understand how that could make some viewers uncomfortable. I think Tarantino’s script deliberately overuses the word to remind us of how it was originally used in this country. It wasn’t an affectionate term used by one black man to describe a friend; it wasn’t part of a rhyming scheme in a hip-hop song. It was a word the white man spat out to describe human beings he kept in shackles because he owned them, just like he owned his land and his horses. The constant use of the term here is a jolting reminder of why it’s such an obscenity.
“Django Unchained” is one of the best movies Tarantino has ever done, and it’s one of the best movies of the year.