Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington star in "Django Unchained." (The Weinstein Company )
Here is the particular brilliance of Quentin Tarantino: He can rip a horrific page out of history — for his latest, "Django Unchained," slavery in the antebellum South — put it through his favorite grindhouse mill, kick in biting comedy whose sheer audacity and searing irony demands laughter, and yet ... and yet ... never for a moment diminish or let us forget the brutal reality.
What the writer-director did so caustically to Nazis in 2009's "Inglourious Basterds" — scalping (literally) and roasting (comically) — was apparently just a warm-up.
In "Django," Tarantino is a man unchained, creating his most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet. Even given the grand tradition of artists using their work for sharp social rebukes — Mel Brooks' genius swipe at Nazism in "The Producers," for one —Tarantino's mash-ups between the unconscionable inhumanity of others and his outrageous riffs on the matter defy comparison.
PHOTOS: 'Django Unchained' - Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz
The four horseman of his apocalypse — Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson — come with guns and metaphors blazing. Their archetypes serve to mark out the battleground Tarantino bloodies with a vengeance that surpasses everything else in his archive, including "Kill Bill" volumes 1 and 2.
Django (Foxx), the slave/freeman; Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), the liberator; Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), the abusive plantation owner; and Stephen (Jackson), the sycophant house slave, provide the film's chaos and catharsis with every rise and fall of their clashes. The indictment comes with each stroke of the lash — and there are countless of them — none harder to watch than the whipping of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django's wife.
With Tarantino there's always a very specific artistic influence informing the theatrics on screen, and in "Django" the style is a priceless cut at spaghetti westerns. The primary homage is to the two Sergios (Corbucci, who introduced "Django" into the movie lexicon in 1966, and Leone, who created a fistful of classics). Whether it was nothing more than a creative choice or a latent desire to extend the Italian dominance of the genre across generations and borders, Tarantino has never seemed more comfortable in the saddle.
The film begins with a line of slaves shackled together on a forced march across a desert that is scorching hot by day, frigid by night. Title cards, which are dropped in periodically, their size a clue to significance, starts the timeline at two years before the Civil War. The arrival of Dr. Schultz, ostensibly a dentist, a giant tooth bobbing atop his coach, changes the course of everyone's life. He is actually a bounty hunter looking to acquire a slave named Django to identify the three murdering-thieving Brittle brothers, who mask their illegal activity as overseers for hire and have a substantial price on their heads.
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Schultz puts forth his proposition with such elegant erudition that it rarely fails to nettle nearly anyone he encounters. This first group, a matted bunch of slavers who spit tobacco and growl at Schultz to "talk English," are typical. The cultural clash becomes one of the film's smartest running gags, and Waltz's delivery, as slick as it is sly, is possibly better than his Nazi colonel in Tarantino's "Basterds," which won him an Oscar.
DiCaprio's villain, who turns up later, is equally exceptional in radically different ways. It is one of the film's conundrums for Foxx, technically the leading man. He does a fine job of melding his newly freed slave into a masterful gunslinger, with all the swagger and retribution that suggests. But there are so many finely crafted performances around him, it's hard for him to rise above the rest.
The side proposition Schultz makes with Django is his freedom once he identifies the Brittles. Over the many campfires that follow, life stories are traded, a friendship is formed and a partnership in the bounty-hunting game is hammered out: "I get paid to shoot white men?"
As satisfying as that is — for us as well — what Django wants most is to buy the freedom of his beloved Broomhilda, their marriage illegal in those times.