That kind of message makes for an awfully dour movie, of course. In Tarantino’s hands, however, Django Unchained is more an exploitation comedy than an anti-bigotry drama. A nighttime lynching scene that features Don Johnson in a Klu Klux Klan outfit is uproarious, while Waltz’s clipped delivery and comic timing lends an air of absurdity to the outrageous violence that trails Dr. Schultz like a foul odor. On the “Candieland” plantation, DiCaprio chews scenery with an unnerving ferocity and Jackson oozes contempt as his favored house slave; in a film filled with bold performances, those two stand out as the most audacious.
Most of the credit for Django Unchained, nonetheless, deserves to go to the madmen behind the scenes. Cinematographer Robert Richardson captures action sequences with an impressive clarity that doesn’t sacrifice Tarantino’s brutal, violent style. (Django’s final shootout is a masterpiece on both accounts.) Even when the bullets aren’t flying, though, Richardson frames gorgeous shots that contrast the diversity of the South against the ever-present bigotry Django faces wherever he goes. And, naturally, Tarantino tops it all off with a brilliant soundtrack that pulls from musicians as dissimilar as Jim Croce and Rick Ross. Contrary to what his critics might believe, Tarantino isn’t simply repurposing genre or style. He’s stripping down these pieces and reconstructing them into an entirely new piece of art.
This is not Tarantino’s best film. Far from it. And yet, it seems like a tremendous shift in his filmmaking. He’s matured from stylized gangster flicks to pragmatic revenge fantasies to, finally, a full-throated attack on social injustice and evil. Hollywood’s wild-eyed son has finally grown up.