Quentin Tarantino has spent a generation (it’s now 20 years since the release of Reservoir Dogs, just in case you wanted to feel old) making ultra-violent revenge films. His latest movie, Django Unchained, continues that tradition though, like his previous movie, Inglourious Basterds, it places that revenge in a broader historical context than the genre pastiches of his early career. In a strange sense this represents a kind of maturation for Tarantino, as even a passing reference to such stone-serious subject matter as slavery or The Holocaust demands an investment in indignation that would have been entirely out of place in a kung-fu bloodbath like Kill Bill.
But for all the righteous fury in Basterds, Tarantino never takes his camera into the concentration camps. Basterds relies on the audience’s knowledge of the horrific events of World War II to provide emotional context for Shoshanna’s revenge on the Nazis. In Django, Tarantino uses his story, a simple one at its heart, to delve deeper into the brutality of slavery in a more visceral fashion than any American filmmaker has before. It’s one thing to be told that black slaves were treated as less than human; it’s quite another to see them forced to wrestle to the death for the amusement of their white owners, or torn apart by dogs. Tarantino’s film destroys the genteel myth of the American South (there should be a mandatory law that this film be screened after every showing of Gone with the Wind). After witnessing the dehumanizing conditions faced by these poor souls on a daily basis, the natural human response is toward a bloody revenge, and Tarantino definitely delivers on the blood.
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most straightforward plot, a story design that adds to the epic sweep of what is, essentially, a superhero origin story. That superhero is the titular Django (Jamie Foxx), a runaway slave re-captured and torn away from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Fortunately for Django his former abusers, the Speck brothers, are wanted men, being tracked by a verbose German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz has never seen the Specks, and he offers Django his freedom in return for a positive identification. As they travel, Schultz initiates Django into the manhunting trade, offering him a chance to “kill white folks” while tracking down his wife.
As he settles into his new profession, Django learns that his wife is being held at the infamous Candyland–the plantation of the impish Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who specializes in “Mandingo Fights”, brutal brawls which force two slaves to grapple to the death (the name is a Tarantino invention, but the practice, sadly, was not). DiCaprio is phenomenal, harnessing his eternally-youthful face and carriage to portray Candie as the ultimate Southern dandy. DiCaprio, famously, was to play the role of Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, which eventually went to Christof Waltz (and won him an Oscar), and when both men share the screen together it’s clear just how well they handle the intricate rhythms of Tarantino’s dialogue.
Waltz in particular is the actor that Tarantino has been waiting for his entire career (just imagine how easily he could fill Harvey Keitel’s shoes as “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction). There are long scenes, especially in the early stretches of the film as Django and Schultz get to know each other, that Waltz’s natural charisma carries which could play as meandering in less capable hands. Waltz, it seems, was meant to read Tarantino in the way that others are meant to read Shakespeare. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Tarantino without Samuel L. Jackson, who appears here as a detestable house slave and delivers a performance as uncomfortable in its embrace of stereotype as it is hilarious in its intensity. After half a decade coasting on Nick Fury it’s nice to remember that when Jackson truly commits he has few equals in Hollywood.
Jamie Foxx isn’t able to compete with any of these powerhouse performances, but he doesn’t have to. For most of the film he is only required to be a stoic bad-ass in the vein of Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. He’s good at that, but once Django is separated from Schultz he takes on his more talkative counterpart’s mannerisms, and isn’t nearly as engaging. But by then, so much s**t is blowing up that it hardly matters.
The movie ends with a sequence which brings the blood of the fields (in one particularly symbolic early shot, blood sprays onto a fresh, white field of cotton) to the manor itself. The shootout is a gleeful homage to the exploitation Westerns of an earlier era, but it’s also a long time coming. Django Unchained marks the first time that Tarantino has not worked with editor Sally Menke (Menke died in 2010). Whether it’s because it’s the first film without his collaborator or not, Django sometimes feels like a movie filled with entertaining but loosely connected moments rather than a cohesive narrative.
But that dichotomy has always been a part of Tarantino’s style. His work provides both the character-building dialogue that defined early 90’s cinema and camera-spattering audience-pleasing thrills. Like Inglourious Basterds before it, Django is exhausting, demanding, but ultimately brilliant.