It's no secret that I'm a big Quentin Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction is, in my view, one of the greatest movies of our time, and I don't think he'll ever top it. I took the liberty of sneaking away for a few hours today to see his latest movie, Django Unchained, which is a genre-bending western set in the pre-Civil War south. The executive summary is that it was an excellent movie, but stopped just short of going completely over the top. If I were to describe it in a slightly more verbose manner, I would say that it's Tarantino's homage to at least a half-dozen genres (western, blaxploitation, slasher, bromance, action, dark comedy), pushed to the point of caricature, sprinkled with some of the best performances I've seen in a very long time. At the end of the day, I think it works, and frankly I'm glad it wasn't another Kill Bill, which was certifiably awful.
Let me get this out of the way: Tarantino's gratuitous use of the word "nigger" made me uncomfortable. It starts right away, it's unrelenting, and frankly I'm not sure it was necessary. Maybe that was the point, and I think one might be willing to give him a pass as the film rolls on, because he paints the racists and slave traders as complete morons. They're bad people using a bad word, and I guess he wants you to know that, so you don't feel bad when they inevitably will die.
The other distracting choice was his use of cartoon-like ultra-violence, specifically the absurd use of blood splatter. While many like to paint Pulp Fiction as a violent movie, it's worth noting that the sum total of people getting shot on-screen might be three seconds at most. It was more subtle, and frankly more sophisticated. That said, the ridiculousness of the violence makes it fake enough to discern real life from fiction. Again, maybe that was his intention. There's one point where a character is shot standing in a doorway, and they fly backward off the set and out of the frame. It got a huge laugh, presumably for its intentional absurdness.
With those comments out of the way, the movie follows the exploits of a German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who finds Django (Jamie Foxx) and frees him from slavery in return for helping him find one of his bounties. In what almost feels like a historically precognitive apology for what Germans would do decades later, not to mention Tarantino's own Inglorious Basterds, he agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife (the gorgeous Kerry Washington), owned by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The risk and tension isn't hard to build, as a freed slave atop a horse in Mississippi is bound to have issues. Dr. King Schultz's purpose in life is not hard to figure out, if his name wasn't a big enough hint.
Tarantino's single greatest strength is dialog, but he keeps it shorter in this movie, relative to his other works. While his long monologues can often cause you physical anxiety (think the scene in the French farmhouse in Basterds), you're largely spared of this here. The speeches are short and the movie keeps moving toward an obvious outcome, where the former slave will have his day mowing down the people who have wronged him and his wife.
And yet, with less to work with, the performances are still some of the best you'll see. Foxx is a badass, growing more confident each minute. Waltz is funny, intelligent and so warm that you want to give him a hug. DiCaprio plays another period character well enough, but it isn't until you pair him with Samuel L. Jackson, playing a cranky old slave of his, that you see total magic happen. The banter between the two is some of the funniest, if not particularly historically accurate, dialog I've seen in a long time. It's like Jules was transported back in time and aged. Tarantino obviously wrote the role for him. There are so many smaller parts by actors you know, and each one owns it. I was shocked to see Don Johnson play "Big Daddy," a total dipshit of a plantation owner, and he nailed it. Michael Parks (the guy who made Kevin Smith's Red State) is gripping in all of the five minutes he's on screen. Even Jonah Hill manages to make the precursor to the KKK funny.
Visually, Tarantino uses the bag of tricks that he has in the past, paying tribute to his own movies as much as anything older. Fast zoom-ins, close-ups of blood splatter, playful use of shadows... it's all there. It even has the classic hero kiss. One stand out that I thought was beautifully shot was the telling of a German myth by Dr. Schultz to Django. Sitting in front of a giant rock, his hand motions cast shadows from the nearby fire.
The soundtrack covers virtually all of the genres as well, leaning heavily toward a 70's vibe, with western and the occasional hip hop feeling mixed in.
The more I talk myself through it, the more I see that nothing in the film was done by accident, including the very things that I found initially distracting. Virtually everything about the movie is derivative, whether it be from Quentin Tarantino's own movies, or others, and it's so obvious that I think he's proud of this. There aren't likely many people in the world who are movie fans the way he is, and the truth is that he can take all of these elements and remix them into something you've never seen before. That's what ultimately makes the film so brilliant, that it's everything you've seen, but completely new. It already has five Golden Globe nominations, for best picture, director, screenplay and best supporting actor (DiCaprio and Waltz).
Django Unchained isn't for everyone, but it's better than most of the movies I've seen in recent years. I loved it.