Having presented his unique twists on organized crime, stunt driving and World War II, Quentin Tarantino is back with a blood-drenched exploration of the times just before the Civil War. All the Tarantino trademarks are there: unconventional characters, long scenes of snappy dialogue and explosive violence. He makes you flinch but he also entertains.
Only Tarantino could come up with a lead character like Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter who has come to America from Germany. Having introduced Christophe Waltz, a seasoned German performer, to U.S. audiences via the actor’s stunning Oscar-winning performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino again collaborates with Waltz in fleshing out Dr. Schultz. In some ways, Schultz is like Col. Hans Landa from “Basterds,” — cunning, genial but also ruthless.
Much like the Landa scene that opens “Basterds,” Waltz and Tarantino have the Schultz character come to life bit by bit. He is first seen rumbling up in a tacky wagon with a tooth sculpture attached to the roof of the cart on a spring, a pre-Civil War bobblehead concept. Respectful and business-like, Schultz approaches a pair of slave traders leading five chained slaves. Schultz is in search of a slave named Django, and sure enough, this man is among the five captives. Schultz offers to buy Django but of course is met with hostility. So he calmly and violently resolves the conflict, claims Django (Jamie Foxx) and moves on.
Schultz has sought Django because he heard the former slave might be able to help him identify three fugitive brothers the bounty hunter is pursuing. Schultz proposes a deal: help him track down and finger the three criminals in exchange for money, a horse and freedom. Django accepts, as he has another pressing issue — finding and reuniting with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who had been sold to some other slave owner.
When Django proves just as ruthless in dealing with the three fugitives brothers, Schultz offers a new deal of a bounty hunter partnership during the winter months, then come spring Schultz would accompany Django to Mississippi as he searches for Broomhilda.
This effort leads them to the Candieland plantation, run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Broomhilda is being held. Schultz and Django settle on a strategy of posing as mandingo fight promoters in search of slaves to engage in this brutal sport, and set up a business meeting with Candie to negotiate a purchase but also to connect with Broomhilda.
It’s nice to see Foxx and Waltz, two Oscar winners, playing off each other with an easy, mutually respectful chemistry. When they hook up with DiCaprio’s Candie, it is an awesome experience of seeing three proven performers working with superb dialogue. DiCaprio epitomizes the Southern slave owner, polite and proper with white people, condescending at best and brutal at worst with the slaves.
“Django” is uncompromising in its portrayal of the treatment of slaves and can make viewers squirm. Later, revenge is sweet, guiltily so.
As in all Tarantino films, it’s the little things that make the movie memorable. Humorous interludes are included like a Ku Klux Klan-like raid led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Bag Head No. 2 (Jonah Hill) that crumbles because their badly cut eye holes in their hoods (or bags, as they call them) seriously hinder their vision.
“Django” is presented in a more linear arc than previous Tarantino films, and of course Tarantino himself makes an appearance that literally ends explosively.
Tarantino does employ his signature tools of long, talky scenes and sometimes cartoonish but explicit violence, setting himself up for criticism of being repetitious. However, seeing different actors get a shot at being a Tarantino-created character is always a new and rewarding experience.