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It is very unfortunate that Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering, Django Unchained, was released in a year that is full of great movies. Despite the fact that Django Unchained is definitely Tarantino’s best since the seminal Pulp Fiction and is debatably his second best movie it will most likely not garner much serious Best Picture buzz in the various end of the year award shows. Django Unchained is very much a cinematic genre mash-up that offers the distinct Tarantino flair without going over the top (for Tarantino) along with incredible performances by the four main leads in Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson which makes it a must see for anyone that can stomach some of the extreme violence (it is Tarantino after all).
Django Unchained takes places two years prior to the Civil War and is about Django (Jamie Foxx), a recently freed slave who befriends the man who freed him, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is a bounty hunter. King introduces Django to bounty hunting and helps train him with the ultimate goal of finding his slave wife and freeing her. She is unfortunately a part of Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation, a notoriously known plantation owner.
The movie’s plot is very straightforward, there really isn’t a single subplot, but it doesn’t hinder the quality of the movie at all. There is no point in which Django is deterred from his ultimate mission or there is ever any doubt Django would eschew the life of a bounty hunter (the film doesn’t bother itself with even trying to create doubt in the viewer’s mind). The plot, however, works perfectly within the genres Tarantino employs. Django Unchained is part western, part modern day comic book and a sprinkling of blaxploitation. While none of these overpower the other it is clear that Tarantino was heavily influenced or challenged himself to work within the specific parameters of those three genres and the plot is very archetypal of all three.
Django Unchained is split up into two parts, or at least the driving force of the movie shifts about a third of the way. At first the movie is heavily focused on King going after the Brittle brothers (this is the reason he has freed Django) and, along the way, Django and King become friends and Django learns a thing or two from King. In retrospect this section of the movie might have been a little too long and somewhat trite. The segment’s point is fairly clear in that it shows Django and King building up a meaningful relationship but the transition from this segment to the final, more important bulk of the movie, seemed abrupt and a tad clumsy. Although the life of a bounty hunter is fairly abrupt as well so perhaps that was the point. The movie is also fairly linear and does not feature the trademark Tarantino interweaving of stories which has really hindered much of his later work, especially Inglorious Basterds.
Once Calvin Candie is introduced the movie really starts to pick up steam and DiCaprio really steals the show. This is not to say that Foxx and Waltz aren’t good, they are. Foxx gives a good performance playing the silent and dangerous type and the chemistry with him and the more talkative (in Tarantino style fashion) and lighthearted Waltz is genuine. However once DiCaprio’s character is first introduced and his visage makes its first appearance it clearly becomes DiCaprio’s movie. It has been well documented how hard it was for him to get into the loathsome, bigoted plantation owner character that is Candie but when he’s onscreen DiCaprio channels his character perfectly. DiCaprio’s performance is at the very least on par with the much ballyhooed performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman from The Master.
His smarminess, the way he wields his very unchallenged power and the excitement DiCaprio portrays when he is doing something inhumane to characters in the movie makes the audience gravitate to the character and DiCaprio’s performance. And like all great performances the other actors that share scenes with DiCaprio are also elevated, especially that of Samuel L. Jackson who plays Stephen, Candie’s top house slave and trusted confidant. The dinner scene in typical Tarantino long cut fashion (not nearly as long as the opening scene from Inglorious Basterds) is particularly fun and frightening (especially when you realize DiCaprio actually cut his hand and continued on with the scene).
Django Unchained is far and away Tarantino’s most enjoyable movie since Pulp Fiction. Despite its very serious and horrifying subject matter it is very humorous. It is a tad lengthy but that in no way should deter you from seeing it. If you can get through the few parts that feature horrifying violence or gore (the over the top blood, that looked like strawberry jam, in the final shootout is the least disturbing example of violence in the film) then Django Unchained is a must see. It may not be the best movie of the year - although it’s pretty close - but it is definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences to be had at the movies this year.