Quentin Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, was notable for its flamboyant Nazi villain, its two dialogue-driven set pieces that, over the course of 20 minutes, slowly built up to knee-shaking levels of suspense, and its insane bloodbath ending.
Django Unchained also features a flamboyant villain (a slave-owner this time), a couple of scenes that go on for 20 minutes and reach levels of suspense that Hitchcock would envy, and an insane bloodbath ending.
He may be repeating himself, but that can be easily forgiven. When you write a screenplay as good as Inglorious Basterds, you’ve earned the right to repeat yourself. And as far as recycled content goes, Django Unchained is top-notch—a rare case in which the warmed-up left overs are as good as the initial meal.
The movie gets off to a terrific start. While trekking through the woods at night with a band of slaves shackled at the ankles, two slave-traders encounter a travelling dentist who introduces himself as King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and, in a succession of hyper-literate sentences that the slave-traders are only able to half-comprehend, informs them that he’s looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx).
Just as he stole every scene in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz steals every scene here. Refreshingly, Waltz plays the good guy this time, and his performance should help reverse the impression—partly caused by his performances in The Green Hornet and Water For Elephants—that he’s only capable of playing sadistic, charismatic Nazis. If Waltz gets another best supporting actor Oscar, it wouldn’t be surprising.
The dentist, it turns out, is also a bounty hunter. He’s searching for three outlaws known as the Brittle brothers, who only Django can identify. After an intense confrontation with the slave-owners, Schultz frees Django, teaches him how to shoot, and together they go on a series of adventures: First they hunt for the Brittle brothers, then they go after various other outlaws, then they try to find Django’s wife, Broomhilda, who was sold to a different owner. (The first act of the movie is basically just Schultz and Django going around the country killing people. This is far more entertaining than it sounds).
About an hour into the movie, Schultz discovers that Django’s wife is being held at Candieland, a plantation owned by the film’s flamboyant villain, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who could also end up with a best supporting actor Oscar). It’s at this point that the film stops being an adventure movie and turns into a painfully intense chamber drama. If you thought the tavern sequence in Inglourious Basterds was suspenseful, you should be pleased with what Tarantino has come up with for the second half of Django.
Posing as Mandigo-fighting managers, Schultz and Django stay overnight at the Candieland plantation. Since buying Broomhilda outright would look suspicious, their plan is to buy a $1000 fighter, and then purchase Broomhilda as an impromptu side deal. What follows are a series of dialogue-heavy cocktail and dinner scenes—some that go on for longer than the average network sitcom—in which the true identities of Django and Schultz constantly teeter on the brink of being exposed. (Again, this is far more entertaining than it sounds).
All of this culminates in one of the craziest, most violent shoot-outs in film history. It may not be quite as crazy as the shoot-out at the end of Inglourious Basterds (no historical figures die in ways that are wildly historically inaccurate), but it’s close enough.
Because of the recent tragedy at Newtown, gun advocates will no doubt try to shift some of the blame off of guns by pointing to the violence in Django Unchained as a reason for why gun massacres happen. (NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre has already suggested that the Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers may have played some role in the massacre). This line of argument ignores the fact that Tarantino’s movies are extremely popular in Canada, the U.K., and Australia—countries that don’t have mass shootings three times a year (and, perhaps not coincidentally, countries which have tighter gun control laws).
In interviews, Tarantino has hinted at the possibility of retiring after two or three more movies. If the rest of his output involves flamboyant villains, 20-minute-long conversations, and insane bloodbaths, that would be perfectly fine. These are ingredients that he deploys with complete mastery, and they show no sign of growing stale any time soon.