“When you have to shoot, shoot…don’t talk,” says rascally Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, offering up some unneeded advice to a fresh corpse. Even though it’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movie, this is wisdom he’s never heeded. Bless him for it: Django Unchained, the director’s long-fantasized trek into Sergio Leone Country—by way of America’s racist South of the pre–Civil War era—is filled with the kind of wall-to-wall chat that marks QT’s best moments. How can he resist a horse named Fritz who neighs hello on cue? (Even animals get in on the gab.) Why include evil Klansmen if they’re not going to pause for a pre-lynching bitch session about hood making, a scene on a par with Reservoir Dogs’ “Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy” argument?
And why saddle up for a Western at all if you’re not going to create a dazzlingly wrong character like Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, a fur-coated German who rides into the film on a wave of Teutonic-accented attitude? A movie called Django Unchained probably has a guy named Django in it (I’ll get to that in a second), but for a good hour or so, it’s not him but Waltz’s impressively verbal bounty hunter you notice, a foreigner with the chutzpah to partner up with a black man and gallop together into the dark heart of Mississippi.
That cohort, a former slave with the “D-is-silent” moniker of the title (Jamie Foxx), says he can identify Schultz’s quarry, a trio of scumbag brothers. And so Django does. But the adventure is just getting started, as we learn that our budding hero has a wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), sold to an unknown plantation. Schultz is moved—how could a sentimental Siegfried fan not be?—and to the oddly fitting strains of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” Tarantino sends his two ramblers out on a quest of revenge and blaxploitation empowerment.
Vibrating with the geekery of a filmmaker off the chain, the movie plays like no other this year. Tarantino, steeped in even the smallest Leonean gesture (what’s with the weird terrain shifts?), knows how to satisfy fans of scuzzy Italian horse operas and badass superviolence in equal measure. Yes, the bloodshedding is stark, especially a slave-on-slave wrestling match that veers into tooth-gnashing desperation.
But to his credit, Tarantino has a point to make (as he did with the equally loopy Inglourious Basterds): something about the way viciousness can grow within the docile. Throughout his career, he’s paid close attention to these pushovers, all the more dangerous for it; Robert De Niro’s fuming ex-con in Jackie Brown comes to mind. And here, in the sweltering Southland, Tarantino has his pick of them. When we meet our ultimate villain, white devil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, clearly enjoying himself), you already suspect another tongue-versus-tongue showdown. They’re giants, these people, waging battles of words, with the fate of human beings in the balance; Django Unchained isn’t far off from Spielberg’s talky Lincoln in this regard. The movie loses its slipperiest speechifiers a bit too soon—Foxx, more of a symbolic presence, is the weak link—but while the conversation rages, you can’t help but gasp at Tarantino’s emancipation proclamation.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Samuel L. Jackson