With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has crafted a motion picture that straddles the line between exploitation cinema and enlightened art. It’s not an easy move to make in today’s controversy-seeking critical realm, but it is an important movie as much as it’s an entertaining one. Tarantino’s skill is in full effect with this 2012 flick, eschewing the glossier side of historical epics as usual for its grittier, more cartoonish angles.
That he manages to tread this ground without ever coming up empty is a marvel, as Django Unchained fills its 165 or so minutes with bloodshed, humour, enraging racism, historical wavering, and wondrous dialogue and never feels overstuffed. And, to boot, he accomplishes the feat with no irony and no nods to the camera; he respects film too much for that.
Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave sold at auction to the Speck Brothers. His transport is intercepted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist with a big wobbly tooth on top of his wagon. Dr. King frees Django and the Speck Brothers are killed, with the German informing his new partner that he wants to track down the Brittle Brothers. Django knows who they are.
It turns out that Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), was sold separately into slavery. With his newfound bounty hunter partner, Django heads to free her from the nefarious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The mission becomes more difficult by the minute, especially after a head slave (Samuel L. Jackson) gets involved.
Much has been made of Django Unchained’s revenge by proxy, where the titular character stands in for history and exacts vengeance on countless villains. This similar concept was explored by Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds and it does appear to have some cathartic value in not only presenting easy bad guys but allowing the concept of revenge to marinate in its own juices.
But more than a revenge story, Django Unchained is a love story. It is clear that Django’s love for Broomhilda knows no boundaries. It is clear that he will stop at nothing to get her back. Dr. King understands this and assists him, partially because he is a German with repulsed by slavery and partially because it makes for a nice role reversal.
Tarantino uses these two characters to paint his historical wagon much in the same way he had a band of Jewish-Americans conspire to wipe out Nazis in Basterds. With Django Unchained, the filmmaker sews together a patchwork of the horrors of slavery – some have said this is excessive, but that seems to show little more than naïveté – on which to plant his surprisingly linear tale.
Indeed, history is a bloody thing. Tarantino doesn’t make it into a mockery and he doesn’t embellish as much as some might think (ever read Gone With the Wind?), especially when it comes to house slaves with their knives out. He seems to know this, choosing to dull the edges of his picture with opportune humour like a Monty Python-esque gag involving an early incarnation of the KKK and their costuming choices.
Further, Tarantino’s wise framing of this tale as a western movie turns history on its head once more. Whereas the western was traditionally the land of the rescue of the damsel in distress, most of the tales seem to ignore the South. Westerns might feature John Wayne searching for, say, Natalie Wood, but they wouldn’t dare traipse this ground so intrepidly.
Tarantino’s decision to use spaghetti western tropes, among other film landmarks, as the straw to stir the proverbial coconut drink is the genius of Django Unchained. His love of dialogue goes without saying and his grislier sides do too, but this vision of history and horror is new ground even for him. It pushes past the door swung open by Basterds and walks out on to the plantation with ferocity and cleverness as sidearms.