For a few years, it appeared as if Quentin Tarantino would retreat into a movie lover’s paradise and never emerge. I’m still recovering from the six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Volume One in the sense that a new Tarantino movie coming out “only” three and a half years after its predecessor, the way Django Unchained followed Inglourious Basterds, fills me with a sense of great optimism that we might get many more Tarantino pictures before the self-imposed retirement he has taken to yammering about for the past few years.
For now, retelling history in his own exploitation-epic image seems to have gotten Tarantino on a tear (or at least his version of one). Just as Basterds gave us a Tarantino gloss on World War II, Django Unchained offers a similarly unlikely portrait of the American South, just before the Civil War — and as with his previous movies, Tarantino’s simultaneous immersion into the period and his own style squares away the many, many potential incongruities.
The movie begins with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, turning his wily eloquence around for good instead of evil) coming upon a shipment of slaves and freeing Django (Jamie Foxx) because he can help the former dentist and current bounty hunter track the men who captured Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz also agrees to train Django in the craft of bounty hunting, so they can earn some money on their way to rescue Broomhlida from Candieland, the plantation owned by the lip-smacking dandy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Apart from a few quick flashbacks, Django has far fewer shifts in timeline or point of view than many of Tarantino’s films, but it has plenty of digressions from its relatively straightforward through-line as Django and Schultz encounter all manner of racists and ruffians, and must blast and/or talk their way out of trouble. Waltz relished his Tarantino monologues as the shrewd Nazi in Basterds; here, he’s put on the defensive, as in a wonderful early scene where he explains to an angry U.S. marshal why, exactly, he just shot the sheriff. Foxx, meanwhile, underplays admirably while much of the movie goes over the top.
When Django and Schultz eventually arrive at Candieland, the movie introduces its bigger gamble: Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the ornery, elderly house slave and Candie’s right-hand man at the plantation. It’s a daring piece of writing by Tarantino and perhaps even more daring work from Jackson, who gives Stephen’s master-pleasing shuck-and-jive an undercurrent of terrifying menace. He and DiCaprio perform ornate duets, luxuriating in their relative power, and Tarantino moves into the simmering suspense mode of Basterds, setting his characters at a dinner table and turning the screws on their deceptions.
Django, then, is terrific, visceral fun, shot with vivid beauty by Robert Richardson. It confirms Tarantino’s status as a first-rank entertainer and reinterpreter of history, cinematic and otherwise. It’s also the first Tarantino movie that has reminded me so actively and consistently of his other films. The historical revisionism, quiet suspense, and use of Waltz recall Inglourious Basterds, of course, but there are other echoes: the sprawling, pulpy revenge story brings to mind the Kill Bill saga (with one bloody shootout rivaling the Crazy 88 fight in Volume One in particular), while the storytelling has echoes of the way Grindhouse stretched out a simple campfire tale with plenty of talk, and some action.
In the past, Tarantino’s tropes have been recombined with the same freshness he brings to his borrowing from other masters. They may all have swears, blood, revenge, and choice pop-music cues, but in its details and themes, his filmography is varied; even the two volumes of Kill Bill feel distinct from one another. Django isn’t exactly derivative; it just feels like it was made in the same groove as Basterds, while that movie was in an original, fascinating groove of its own.
Maybe anything short of another absolute masterpiece was bound to represent just the slightest comedown from his previous film. It’s also a mild disappointment that Tarantino, coming off a series of great roles for women in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Basterds, fixates on the boys here; Washington has little to do beyond express her love for her husband. It feels sincere, but thin. That thinness is uniform in the supporting cast; the other small parts, mostly hillbillies of one sort or another, skew closer to cannon fodder than usual. It’s fun, of course, to see Don Johnson drawling around as the noxious plantation owner Big Daddy, or Walton Goggins as the dark-eyed Billy Crash, or even Jonah Hill in a hilarious cameo as an early Klansman. But these aren’t the rich and intriguing supporting characters we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino ensemble. They’re all really just mini-bosses on the way to DiCaprio’s Candie and Jackson’s Stephen.
Then again, that Klan episode with Hill and Johnson is one of the funniest of Tarantino’s career, poking holes, as it were, in the evil of the Ku Klux Klan with a satiric goofiness that brings to mind early Mel Brooks — not foremost among directors you’d expect to recall in a Tarantino slavery western. Even when he repeats himself, the man can still surprise you.
The Blu-ray release features several making-of featurettes, plus digital copies.