When I’ve imagined what will become of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career should he be fortunate enough to act until he’s old and grey I instantly think of him as another Peter O’Toole: a tremendous actor with a portfolio full of nods from all the major award giving organizations yet no finite recognition of his commanding talent. Now thirty-eight years old, DiCaprio has made himself through his dashing characters whether they are romantic heroes or at least well-intentioned protagonists though always a good guy. He came into the radar for playing the mentally challenged younger brother Artie to Johnny Depp’s eponymous sad sack in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; he’s donned extravagant costumes to play grand historical figures and starred in massive blockbuster romances. In his personal life he seems to revel in his good looks having the heartthrob status be a constant in his life while also dating a smattering of young and famously attractive women. Although I’ve never met him he’s seems genuinely well mannered, magnanimous, and nice. So when I first heard that he would have a role in Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum southern slave drama Django Unchained, I was both instantaneously curious and worried – what would a writer/director, infamous for his inversions of Hollywood norms and complete disregard for mass criticism, turn a handsome, sweet actor like DiCaprio into? Perhaps a heinous, vitriolic, and charismatic slave owner with rotten teeth and a penchant for torture? Alrighty then.
Being a huge fan of Tarantino’s work I fancied myself, while on way to see the film for the first time on Christmas day, to know what to expect in some sense. And yet it was unlike any movie the American auteur has produced; it lacks the episodic plot structure, ingenious interweavings of multiple storylines, and the artful, lengthy conversation scenes. It was though fashioned after one of his favorite genres, the spaghetti Western, with its sprawling and at times tedious narrative. And he also doesn’t miss a chance to show off his flair for visual realism with bloody and gooey zealousness. And yet every drawback the film has melts away with the introduction of DiCaprio’s morally depraved and insouciant plantation owner Monsieur Calvin J. Candie. To elaborate on the character and its deeds would be a disservice to you should you ever garner the courage to brave the onslaught of this intense film, but I will say that all of it is very, very worth it precisely because the cause of your discomfort will also be your reward. The one thing I knew for certain when DiCaprio took this role in this movie was that he would bring every ounce of his extremely powerful and emotionally charged talent to it, but I never fully realized how much he would flourish in this role, which needless to say is light-years beyond anything he’s ever done before…and all the better for it. I haven’t loved to hate a character so much since Javier Bardem’s Oscar winning psycho killer Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. DiCaprio’s ability to both excite you and frighten you, in only the way that he can, justifies my saying that awards should be thrown at him. I’m so thankful that DiCaprio showed such trust in Tarantino, who has a knack for bringing out greatness in already great people. He’s unbelievably amazing. Even if Leo never had my love and respect before, he sure as hell has it now, and a whole lot of it.