If it wasn’t over the top, it wouldn’t be Tarantino. Django Unchained, the filmmaker’s nearly three-hour long tale of antebellum empowerment set in the Deep South, reaches the screen in bounds of unbridled joy and leaps of feeling. As desperately entertaining as it is dark, this movie explodes and exhilarates. It’s pulpy, profane, giddily violent and gleefully gory, but some scenes stand at the borderline between farce and tragedy. Although brutally funny, Django Unchained is also an important—if not too serious—movie about slavery and racism in pre-Civil War America.
Steeped in the director’s distinct brand of movie love, which sometimes makes him tread the thin line between homage and plagiarism, the film marks another of Tarantino’s tributes to the more outlaw, outsider, and less well-regarded genres: the spaghetti western and blaxploitation pictures of the seventies. The highly stylized movie, however, is notable as the filmmaker’s first real love story, its comparatively straightforward narrative centering on freed slave Django’s (Jamie Foxx) journey to reconnect with his wife Hildi (Kerri Washington).
Opening on the old-fashioned Columbia logo and some bright red Technicolor credits, the film self-consciously looks more like the unrelated 1966’s Django starring Franco Nero (who has a bit part in Tarantino’s movie). But before we have time to delight in this throwback, the director plunges us into the realities of 1858 Texas instead of the Sergio Leno-Clint Eastwood revenge fantasies whose style he mimics: one of the first shots captures the shockingly scarred backs of a group of slaves as they’re marched through the nighttime countryside in shackles, on their way to the auctioning block. Because Tarantino understands that short glimpses of such cruelty often go a long way, he doesn’t dwell.
The tone changes when an absurd-looking carriage with a giant wooden tooth bobbing on top enters the scene. It belongs to German dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz (a deliciously devilish Christoph Waltz). In no time, Dr. Schultz manages to acquire Django, whose help he needs in locating a trio of outlaws, unchain the other men, and leave their masters for dead. “If there are any astronomy aficionados among you,” he tells the slaves now awoken to the possibility of freedom in a more enlightened region, “the North Star is that one,” and points it out with a specificity and smile that speak mirth and menace in equal parts.
Waltz, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the charming, brutal SS officer Hans Landa in the director’s Inglourious Basterds, now plays the charming, brutal bounty hunter just as brilliantly, stealing every scene he’s in and substituting “bull’s-eye” for “bingo.” Although his genteel manner hides a deep capacity for ruthlessness, Waltz’s dentist is decidedly one of the good guys. Schultz is self-interested, but not without a conscience.
An unlikely sidekick to the loquacious, flowery doctor, Django soon discovers that bounty-hunting fits him like a hand-grasping glove. Habitually choosing the first option for the wanted criminals (dead or alive), Django agrees to ride with Schultz for the winter in exchange for the dentist’s help in retrieving his still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda von Shaft, a name that unites German legend with one of the most famous of all blaxploitation heroes. “Kill white folks and they pay you for it?” Django asks as he starts meting out bloody justice; “what’s not to like?”
The pair’s search for Hildi take them to Candyland, the luxurious estate of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) , a sadistic, cheerful plantation owner who enjoys Mandingo fighting, a bloody, amoral sport in which bare-chested slaves are pitted against each other in a fight to the death.
Basking in a recently discovered dark side, DiCaprio sinks his tobacco-stained teeth into the role with almost indecent flair, playing Candie as a flamboyant, self-entitled brat and a truly loathsome individual. Candie is aided in his savagery by house slave Stephen (an unrecognizable, prostethically aged Samuel L. Jackson), who might represent the purest form of evil in the film, an Uncle Tom whose monstrous servility makes him more concerned with enforcing the power structure than his master is.
“Is that a nigger on a horse?” he repeatedly asks in disbelief as Django rides in. Those offended by the N word should search out a different, softer movie, since the racial derogation must be heard at least a hundred times—in the mouths of blacks and whites, good and evil, slaves and masters.
Much in the same manner he did in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino re-envisions the past to make sure those who suffered get their revenge. Meaningfully engaging history even as he rewrites and repurposes it, the writer/director once again redefines the archetypal vigilante, putting power (and lots of guns) into the hands of his unchained slave the same way he did the Jewish soldiers in his last picture, in which Hitler got what was coming to him.
Of course the plot of Django is absurd, but no more so than the abominable truths it depicts. Treating history with irreverent humor, the film is ultimately no more outrageous and distortive than Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation, which Tarantino one-ups with a hilarious scene of the Klan riding blindly because the holes in their hoods haven’t been cut right, a visual joke that is pure Mel Brooks. The movie is scholarly in its detail and dazzling dialogue, but also filled with moments like this one, of unbridled silliness and elation. Good taste doesn’t always apply, and anything goes in the director’s universe.
The filmmaker breathes violent, vivid, visceral life into the genres he takes on. Although Tarantino sets his film in the Old South rather than the Wild West, Django overflows with references to both the good old classic western and its spaghetti counterpart with its quick, exaggerated zooms, clanging soundtrack, and mythic landscape, even featuring a shot in which the hero is seen riding into town framed by a hangman’s noose. And the movie pays respect not only to its director’s myriad cinematic influences, but to the country itself. Cinematographer Robert Richardson bathes Django in the warm and gritty colors of the genre, capturing the vast wide open spaces that make characters in a western so often seem small and insignificant.
In terms of music, which is always incredibly important in any Tarantino film, the director creates colorful creative anachronisms, using everything from a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur through John Legend to Ennio Morricone.
In spite of the tendency to quote from other films, however, Tarantino makes Django completely his own, a work of bold originality and often fearsome beauty, peppering it with unforgettable, powerful images of visual poetry, such as when blood splatters an unpicked field of snow-white cotton bolls.
The movie has all of the classic features of a Tarantino film: sudden outbursts of violence and bloodshed, carnage, self-conscious witty repartees, clever monologues and incessant talk-talk-talk. If there is one thing the director has perfected it’s Mexican standoffs, and Django doesn’t disappoint. Although taken to an extreme, the violence is epic and enormous, but not undeserved or dehumanizing.
Django is exuberant, if a bit excessive, and takes its time, wandering in length as well as content and style. But at its heart, the film focuses on a moral disgust with slavery, affirmation of freedom, sympathy for the underdog, and the strength and importance of human bonds, romantic (between Django and Hildi) or otherwise (between Django and Schultz). It might not be flawless, but it certainly is fearless.