The weight and ugliness of slavery is felt in this clever, ambitious and superbly acted tale of wish fulfillment.
There's an epic spaghetti Western feel to Quentin Tarantino's latest action/comedy/romance hybrid that is by turns dazzling, daring, gruesome and astonishingly funny.
Django Unchained ( * * * 1/2 out of four; rated R; opens Christmas Day nationwide) is classic Tarantino. This inventive, beautifully shot reimagining of history features Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave-turned-hero who teams up with offbeat dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. (Christoph Waltz). The dialogue, particularly in the first hour, is some of the wittiest of any screenplay in recent memory.
As the movie opens, Foxx is one of a group of chained slaves being transported by traders on a cold night two years before the Civil War. The German-born Schultz buys Django and offers him his freedom in exchange for his assistance in tracking down a trio of murderous brothers.
Django leads Schultz to his quarry — and finds he has an affinity for that line of work. Schultz suggests they become partners. After a bloody stopover in a frontier town, the two arrive at the plantation of Big Daddy (played winningly by Don Johnson), who resembles a younger Colonel Sanders.
Django proves an astute bounty hunter with a sharp aim. But above all, Django wants to reunite with his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The pair's search leads them to a nasty Francophile named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and ultimately to his massive plantation known as Candyland, where Broomhilda is being held. Candie's most trusted house slave, Stephen (an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson), becomes suspicious of Django and Schultz, which spurs the film's most absurdly vivid and grisly scene.
Foxx does a terrific job as the taciturn Django, and Washington is wonderful as Broomhilda, but the performances of Jackson, Waltz and DiCaprio are the most memorable. The entire ensemble is first-rate, and the musical score, filled with classic spaghetti Western compositions as well as a song by John Legend, makes the movie all the more indelible.
Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson fashion gorgeous panoramic visuals of the countryside, which provide a striking counterpoint to the bloodbath that comes in the final third of the film.
Tarantino has something serious to say about American culture, history and race, but the unremitting violence and offensive language may be too much for some viewers.
By graphically depicting the mistreatment of slaves, Tarantino drives home the ugliness of racism and, as in his Inglourious Basterds from 2009, offers an empowering alternate vision. The revisionist result is incendiary and difficult to watch but also thought-provoking and consistently entertaining.