At this point in his career, many consider writer and director Quentin Tarantino to be a messiah of bold originality. His style of mashing up genres and filling scenes to the brim with obscure homages has inspired cult-like fervor amongst his fans.
This brazen approach to filmmaking shines especially bright in his newest epic Django Unchained, a spaghetti western set in 1858 in the Deep South with a focus on slavery. Very few directors could successfully turn this into something both mesmerizing and fun, but Tarantino manages to do just that. The fact that Django not only works as an excellent piece of filmmaking but also attracts a large audience - it has already amassed over $100 million at the box office since its Christmas Day opening - is impressive.
The film stars Jamie Foxx as the titular Django Freeman, a slave in pre-Civil War America. His shackles are soon released when he crosses paths with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz gives Freeman his freedom in return for his help in identifying a band of slave-beating brothers with bounties on their heads.
After the pair goes on a gleefully bloody rampage, the film shifts focus to rescuing Freeman's wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from the oppression of slavery and her deliciously villainous owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Django Unchained is fun and unabashedly so. While the film examines the atrocities of slavery and the innate racism of the era, it also zings one-liners and hilariously celebrates over-the-top violence. Tarantino's humor is what makes his movies so distinctive and why we can sit through an almost three-hour film about slavery and somehow leave smiling.
Tarantino's hypnotic dialogue and rapid-fire jokes would be nothing without its excellent cast though. Foxx as Freeman completely inhabits the role and relishes in the absurd amount of carnage his character induces. Waltz, who won an Oscar for Tarantino's last film Inglourious Basterds, turns in another award-worthy performance. He has a knack for balancing humor with terrifying passion. DiCaprio is also a revelation here. He certainly doesn't make Candie sympathetic, but he creates a character that is gleefully evil and exciting to watch and listen to.
The film's weakest link is Washington's Von Shaft, though that is not an insult to Washington. She does everything she can in this mostly thankless role. Tarantino is usually so good at writing roles for women - think The Bride in Kill Bill or Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown - but he really slips up here. Von Shaft is essentially relegated to the “damsel in distress” role, and acts only as a motivator for Freeman.
Django also suffers from being much too long. Tarantino is one of the best writers in Hollywood and consistently produces great dialogue, but his films quickly slip into self-indulgence. Scenes tend to overstay their welcome and often start to meander without purpose. His more successful films hone in on his words, or give them an added layer of subtext, but that is largely vacant here. Twenty or more minutes could have easily been cut from this movie without sacrificing the plot or tone.
Still, Django Unchained is a highly enjoyable movie with great acting, an absolutely bonkers plot and a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack. While it isn't Tarantino's best movie, it is certainly one of the best films of 2012.