Quentin Tarantino's latest movie is, like so many of his other films, a delightful stew of many film genres: Western, blaxploitation, revenge drama, heroic origin story. It opens in 1858 Texas, with two slave traders transporting half a dozen slaves through the wilderness. The slaves are barefooted and wearing little beyond rags despite the subzero temperatures, and they're shackled together. Out of the night emerges Dr. King Schultz (charming Christoph Waltz) an apparent dentist who's looking to buy a slave from a particular plantation. The slave in question is Django (Jamie Foxx), and when Schultz's offer to buy Django is refused, things get very bloody very quickly.
It turns out that Schultz is actually a bounty hunter, hired by the U.S. Government to hunt down outlaws and bring them back dead or alive (Schultz prefers dead, as it makes the transportation and collection of the bounty much easier). He's looking for three men known as the Brittle Brothers, who were overseers at the plantation where Django was a slave. Django and his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), in love but forbidden by their master to marry, had tried to run away but were caught by the Brittle Brothers, then sold after being whipped and branded. Schultz needs Django's help to catch the brothers, as he doesn't know what they look like. In return, Schultz will set Django free and help him to find and rescue Broomhilda.
The pleasures of Django Unchained are many, from the eloquence of Schultz as he talks his way out of various scrapes, to an encounter with a proto-KKK group that's like a lost scene from Blazing Saddles, to the bloody revenge on vile slave-owners. There are moments of pure cinematic pleasure as well, particularly when Schultz trains Django in the fine art of bounty hunting while Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" plays on the soundtrack. But the movie doesn't shirk from the horrors of slavery. We see glimpses early on, from the raw ankles of the enslaved men at the film's beginning to the brutal scene of Broomhilda's whipping. But once Schultz and Django arrive at the plantation where Broomhilda is kept, the film takes a turn for the grim. The plantation's owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in sleazy lizard mode) is a freak for "Mandingo fights" in which slaves fight each other bare-handed, often to the death. The introduction for Candie is also the introduction for one of these fights, a shockingly violent affair. Things only get worse when the party arrives at Candie's plantation, called Candie Land (a joke that stops being funny once we learn of the notorious reputation the place has among slaves), where runaway slaves are mauled to death by dogs or imprisoned in metal boxes left out in the sun. From there it's a duel of wits for Django and Schultz against not just Candie, but against his head house servant Stephen (almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson), who's in many ways the real power at Candie Land, and who's deeply suspicious and resentful of Django and Schultz.
Through it all Tarantino shows his trademark mastery with actors, getting excellent performances from the entire cast. Foxx turns in a nice, subtle performance, saying little but letting you know what Django's thinking through his eyes and small gestures. Waltz has the more showy part, playing Schultz as a nice-guy version of Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, a man who's very honorable in his way despite the bloody nature of his profession. Washington hasn't much to do but conveys resilience and inner toughness for her character. I've never been much of a DiCaprio fan, but he's a wonder as Calvin Candie, an idiot who fancies himself a Francophile but can't even pronounce "monsieur" correctly, who holds the power of life and death over people. And then there's Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, shifting from jovial servility in front of his masters to being a petty tyrant to the other slaves.
Tarantino also displays his usual adeptness with the film's mood and tone, shifting on a dime when needed. He also never loses sight of the horrors of slavery: violence done toward the slaves is brutal, gritty, and realistic (it's sometimes even filmed differently); violence toward the slave-owners is gaudy and occasionally even cartoonish (one demise is something that could easily have happened to Wile E. Coyote).
There are many little details in the story to appreciate, from a Beethoven melody's unexpected effect to a slave not knowing how to talk to a free black man. Like many of Tarantino efforts, it will definitely stand up to repeat viewings, when one can feel less tense and take in more of the details.
If the film doesn't reach the level of Inglourious Basterds, it's probably because it's something of a lateral move for Tarantino, and some of his tricks are familiar. Like Basterds, Django Unchained has its share of build-ups that lead to unexpected resolutions and subterfuges that don't pan out as planned. And though the movie flies by, its pacing seems off in the last quarter. But it's still an immensely satisfying film, hilarious and appalling by turns, and if it doesn't right history's wrongs on the scale that Basterds did, the rough justice meted out is very pleasing.