It is 1858, just three years before the Civil War begins when we find Django (Jamie Foxx) being traipsed across the desert in chains by his new owners who have just purchased him from a local slave auction. His fortune soon turns for the better when he crosses paths with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter who is in desperate need of Django's knowledge in regards to his former owners. The two men strike a deal instantly with Django agreeing to help find the men Schultz is in search of and Schultz agreeing to set Django free and help him find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was sold to the ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Quentin Tarantino always seems to be able to surprise even when you know exactly what to expect from his films going in. You know to expect colorful and expertly written dialog and actors who know how to deliver such eloquent monologues. You know to expect a fairly straightforward story with many embellishments that add unique personality quirks to his many richly drawn characters. You know that even though it appears to be a western with all the trimmings that it likely won't resemble any western you have ever seen. Most of all though you know to expect the unexpected, that around every turn there is a surprise that will shock and/or amaze you with its brilliance and its boldness. "Django Unchained" is a film along those same lines and because of that is yet another great film for a fantastic filmmaker.
You have never quite seen a western done in this particular fashion. To use a lazy example to help explain, if you were to take Tarantino's classic "Pulp Fiction" and uplift its many memorable characters and strange but grounded setting and drop them into the old west then you might have a small inkling of what kind of movie this is. Like most of his films though, it doesn't take long to realize there is much more going on under the surface beyond just that of the story of a freed slave turned bounty hunter. Django and Schultz's bounty hunting excursions help set the stage for what is to come but do it at a leisurely pace so that we can soak in every ounce of its many charms. You may think you know westerns but your perceptions are about to be altered drastically.
Clearly having fun playing around in the western landscape, we get to see them go on a number of bounties but in a deceptively clever way we are being given information about both men and their ambitions up front that will come into play much later. Their very first bounty takes them to a plantation owned by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) where we see first hand the skills both men have when it comes to playing a role to gain entrance into a person's home who otherwise would turn them away. It's all done with a bit of whimsy and that trademark Tarantino humor (just wait until you hear the conversation about cutting holes in sacks). In the grand scheme of things though, that first bounty they collect and all the subsequent ones we see briefly in montage form are all about setting us up for the eventual payoff. Tarantino loves to create these smaller stories in context to the bigger one at hand, but does it in a way that isn't forced or overly self serving.
His film's almost have this opposite effect on people, where the dialog scenes are where the meat of the story lies while the brief outbursts of bloody violence (and this movie is extremely violent) are more of a means to an end. The action can almost never hold a candle to the near poetic strings of dialog that come forth from his actors. There are numerous examples of his style at work in "Django Unchained". An early bounty hunting session with Schultz and Django up on a hill overlooking their target who is calmly tending to his crops with his children is played as this laid back, tense and even humorous moment with Schultz instructing Django on why this man needs to die and they need to get paid. The kill is the release of the tension as opposed to building the tension.
Just the way Schultz speaks is a testament to both Tarantino's written work and Waltz's ability to deliver said dialog in a way that is simply mesmerizing. Watching him attempt to speak proper to a bunch of hillbillies or plantation workers is an exercise in futility for the poor man but it is endlessly entertaining watching him try and eventually give in to the stupidity around him. Likewise, seeing Django transform into a well spoken and cordial man is just as engaging to witness, but it is the interactions each man has with the other and whomever is unlucky enough to cross their paths that truly grabs the viewer by the groin and never lets go.
That is when we are introduced to Calvin Candie and his legendary plantation know as Candieland. The film suddenly shifts in a completely different direction. No longer about these two men bonding and learning about one another as they collect bounties, it becomes a story about these two men on a mission to rescue a damsel in distress, a notion made even clearer by a tall tale as recounted by Schultz in an earlier scene when he first hears of Django's wife's name, Broomhilda. A tale that is reworked into the harsh and hellish world of Candie's plantation, where suddenly Django is the hero of the story who fears nothing or no one that stands in his way of being reunited with his wife.
As is common place with Tarantino, he loves to have main characters appear for the first time near the tail end of his stories to suddenly change your perspective on the situation. Up until we actually arrive at Candie's home, we are led to believe Calvin Candie himself is the devil incarnate, we see him use his slaves in fights to the death for profit and fun, torture and kill slaves that try to run away and show absolutely zero remorse for any of it. He is a stereotypical villain through and through and DiCaprio plays him to evil perfection giving a performance unlike any he has before. But he is upstaged by the brilliantly subtle and decrepit Samuel L. Jackson as his houseman, Steven.
It doesn't take long to recognize Steven as the true villain of the film as he clearly has his own best interests at heart when dealing with either his fellow slaves (of whom he oppresses even more so than Candie) or with Candie himself (of whom he cleverly manipulates into doing what he wants). Making Steven, a slave, be more villainous than the plantation owner who takes pleasure in torturing and killing his slaves is genius and an angle most will not expect. Those surprises mentioned earlier? This is one of them and even knowing he is up to no good from the beginning doesn't change how often you will be shocked at his actions throughout the latter half of the film.
The only major part of the film left to talk about is Foxx in the lead role as Django. Jamie Foxx is one of the very few actors to come from a strictly comedic background and find a place for himself in the world of dramatic acting, but like any good comedic actor turned legit, he knows how to balance the seriousness and urgency of a piece of dialog with a slight wink and a smile. That special quality of acting shines brightly as the hero of the film. He may get overshadowed by his fellow co-stars, but Foxx still delivers the goods when it comes to a guy the audience can get behind and root for to kill the bad guys.
Quentin Tarantino has successfully merged a typical western genre film with his style of filmmaking. He has taken one of the darkest portions of American history and created a film that straddles the line between excessiveness (there are reportedly over 100 uses of a very particular word for example) and spectacle. He was able to explore an era most (hopefully all) Americans are ashamed of and give us a story and characters that are deep and complex enough that the setting almost becomes invisible after a while. With outstanding performances across the board, his usual brand of humor injected throughout to keep things light and fun and yet another masterful collection of spot on musical choices, "Django Unchained" is another classic from the master of pulp cinema.