When it comes to the works of American auteur Quentin Tarantino, ranking films becomes almost impossible. Among the greatest living masters of the cinematic art, Tarantino is one of the least prolific and most recently branded. His directorial debut, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, blew the doors off the independent cinema bubble and became an immense cult hit. The follow-up, 1994’s Pulp Fiction, was even bigger: it earned Tarantino his first Academy Award notices for Best Picture and Best Director and netted him an Oscar for his work on the screenplay, but the impact of the film was felt far beyond the awards race. Sure, Pulp Fiction resurrected the career of leading man John Travolta and gave Samuel L. Jackson his trademark onscreen role (he’s remained a Tarantino stand-by ever since), but more than that, Tarantino’s obsession with B-movie tropes, his palpable love for dialogue and character development, and his willingness to manipulate the norms of movie narratives made the film one of the most important and influential entries in nineties cinema. Aside from the animation game-change nature of the original Toy Story or the technical sweep of James Cameron’s Titanic, no film from that decade has had a wider or more lasting impact on the moviemaking art.
A director who makes their magnum opus the second time out is one that finds himself in an interesting (and hardly enviable) position, but Tarantino has dealt with those inherent expectations by simply not allowing them to govern him. Since his early pastiche-driven classics, Tarantino has flitted back and forth between blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, revenge sagas and Hong Kong samurai movies, slasher films and war epics, landing recently in the “revisionist history” section. His list of favorite films looks nothing like yours or mine, representing a deep-seated love of what many would dismiss as low-budget, offensive trash. He’s got a soft side for the cheesy and the gratuitously violent and he’d choose the cult classic camp over awards prestige any day of the week. But he’s also a terrific director and an even better storyteller, with a more natural ear for dialogue than any other living screenwriter (except for maybe Aaron Sorkin) and a tendency for drawing career defining work out of his performers. He aims for cinematic territory that no one else would touch, and that idiosyncratic sensibility allows his films to be unique, explosive, provocative, controversial and, most of all, unforgettable works of art. And while no one could call the Tarantino prolific—when Reservoir Dogs marked its 20th birthday in October, he only had seven directorial features to his name—that’s part of his charm: in an age of largely disposable cinema, Tarantino’s movies still feel like events.
And “event” was precisely what it felt like as I sat down, at 1:20 p.m. on Christmas Day to watch my hometown’s first ever showing of Tarantino’s latest, Django Unchained. Right from the first moments, there’s no question that this is a Tarantino movie: elements of his filmography crop up in nearly every shot, from the historical basis of the film’s revenge plot (which echoes Inglourious Basterds and its treatment of the Holocaust) to the blood-soaked, spaghetti western aesthetic (Kill Bill Vol. II) to the cast, a nice collection of old Tarantino favorites and stars working with him for the first time. The film opens with Dr. Schultz, a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter (played to gleeful perfection by Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his performance as Basterds’ charismatic Nazi antagonist), descending upon a pair of slave drivers returning from an auction with their latest purchases. Among the group is Django (Jamie Foxx), a broken down man with information on Schultz’s next three targets and plenty of built up resentment for his white oppressors.
Quickly the two form a partnership, with the slavery-hating Schultz promising Django boundless freedom in exchange for his help. As we look back now at our country’s most inhumane hour, we all like to hope that we would have behaved differently, that we would have broken the grotesque relationship between whites and blacks and treated our brothers and sisters as equals rather than as property. Waltz’s character is the organic realization of these hopes, a good-natured and kindly fellow who makes sure to tell Django right away that, since he needs the latter’s help, he’s going to “use this slavery malarkey to his advantage” but that he feels guilty about it nonetheless. Still, one of the greatest joys of the early scenes is watching how Foxx, giving one of his richest performances to date, reacts to being treated like an actual human being. Waltz strolls him into a saloon, getting him a beer when the bartender runs off to find the sheriff; he lets him ride on a horse and choose his own clothing, and even puts a gun in his hand. In return, Foxx’s character learns to trust the white doctor, telling him of how he and his wife were separated for trying to run away from their owners, how they were sold separately and at cheap prices to underline their shame. When Django finally pulls the trigger for the first time, it’s clear that his mentor-apprentice relationship with Schultz has opened up a Pandora’s Box of repressed rage and hate, a thirst for revenge that won’t be satiated until he’s back with his wife and everyone who stood between them is dead on the floor.
And that’s pretty much exactly how things go down. Schultz partners up with Django for the winter, agreeing to help him find his wife once the snowy season passes. Their quest leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy plantation owner with a twisted obsession for making fierce and strong-bodied slaves fight to the death. Django and Schultz engage his company under the guise of purchasing such a fighter (and for a price too ridiculous too ignore), but their end goal is decidedly less macabre. Schultz has ascertained that Candie is the new owner of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (a beautifully restrained Kerry Washington, championing subtlety in a cast full of scenery-chewing movie stars), and the slave fighting charade is just a cover for procuring her freedom. The two miscalculate though, not counting on the looming presence of Candie’s butler Stephen (played by a viciously menacing Samuel L. Jackson), an Uncle Tom archetype who has internalized so much of his master’s cruel, racist hatred and supremacist dealing that he legitimately becomes the co-villain of the piece.
As Tarantino’s western races towards its extraordinarily gory conclusion, the relationships and narrative implications between the four central characters begin to tangle. Waltz’s Schultz bequeaths the hero’s mantle to Django, Foxx morphing into his own Clint Eastwood-esque cowboy as he gets more adept at putting on a facade. More unexpected is the way Tarantino subverts expectations with his villainous characters, delivering intertwining fates to DiCaprio and Waltz that viewers won’t see coming until minutes before they scorch the screen, and setting up a similar trading of roles between DiCaprio and Jackson. As for the rest of DiCaprio’s henchmen, you can almost see the cogs moving in Foxx’s brain as he gazes over their ranks, making a list of guys to pay back for their mistreatment, ignorance, and inhumanity. Needless to say (this is a Tarantino film, after all), the body count rises rapidly.
Django Unchained is one of 2012’s best offerings, but has Tarantino made better films? Perhaps he has. It’s still difficult to put anything above Pulp Fiction, even this many years after the fact, and Basterds was easily one of my favorite movies of the last decade. No scenes here quite reach the dizzying dialogue density of Tarantino’s finest moments, and bits and pieces of the third act feel jarring or out of place in their pacing (rumor has it that Tarantino had to trim more than 30 minutes from the film’s runtime in the eleventh hour of production). But it’s hard to fault a film like this one, a film that builds so viscerally, so excitingly, and so hilariously towards its explosive conclusion, a film whose performers give their all (and then give a little bit more), and a film that gives American slavery its most sobering, unflinching, a satisfying portrayal in years. Certainly, Tarantino’s rich and unique vision of those times is far more interesting and important than the one Stephen Spielberg (a cinematic master, but a manipulative one) offered in 2012 with Lincoln. Just as Inglourious Basterds gave us a gleefully cathartic vision of how the Third Reich could have crumbled at the hands of the right rebels, Django Unchained gives us a chance to see an enigmatic free-man and his righteous indignation blast through the horrors of slavery. The resulting film will undoubtedly be too dangerous and too divisive for Oscar (though Waltz and DiCaprio both stand a chance to slip into the Best Supporting Actor category), but that doesn’t make Django Unchained any less of a masterpiece, nor does it change the fact that Quentin Tarantino is one of America’s most exciting and vital filmmakers.