After the explosive brilliance of "Inglourious Basterds," what was a creative filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino to do? Interestingly, the writer-director chose to follow Horace Greeley's advice: "Go West, (not-quite) young man."
And then he turned east to head to the South, and then he turned the whole, ugly establishment of slavery of the 19th-century United States on its ear. The result is "Django Unchained," an indictment of our past and a reminder of how we got where we are in terms of racism and regional economics in the guise of a rollicking, violent action film with splashes of hilarious, delectable dialogue that could come only from Tarantino.
Oh, and it's also part buddy film, epic quest, revenge saga and romance, but it probably would not be considered an official event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial (and not just because it predates the start of the war by three years).
Knoxville-born Tarantino isn't some carpetbagger with an agenda. He has a dog in this fight as a native Southerner and as a cultural observer whose love of America is tempered by his awareness of its weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is sugarcoating history, and if there's one thing Tarantino doesn't do, it's sugarcoat anything.
"Django Unchained" starts in 1858 Texas, where German bounty hunter and non-practicing dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz of "Basterds") "frees" slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from slave traders because he needs his help identifying some prey. It quickly becomes clear that Schultz is both an excellent bounty hunter and an intelligent man who abhors slavery and stupidity.
Django (the "D" is silent) accepts Schultz's offer of partnership, both because he needs the money and cover, and because he needs Schultz's help to find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Django is a natural at bounty hunting, and he obviously takes pleasure in being able to shoot white men legally.
Eventually, they learn that Broomhilda is the property of a Mississippi plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie leaves the operations of his plantation to overseers as he seeks out ever-more-debauched forms of entertainment, including his current favorite, Mandingo fighting, where two slaves fight each other to the death.
Schultz devises what he believes to be a clever plan to remove Broomhilda from Candyland, but he hasn't factored in Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's aged majordomo.
The movie's many moods will leave audiences breathless and invigorated. The emotional terrain is as complex as the narrative one, but it all comes together beautifully. The film doesn't feel its 165-minute length — Tarantino fans will want more.
Foxx and DiCaprio both do fine work, but "Django Unchained" belongs to Waltz and Jackson. Each mines the unexpectedness of his character till it crackles intriguingly. Wall-to-wall familiar faces in smaller roles make the film even more enjoyable.
Tarantino takes his rewrite of history to the edge but doesn't leap over. Along with wish fulfillment, he provides enough grounding in reality to make his points about the wickedness and foolishness of humans owning other humans. "Django Unchained" is a liberating experience.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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