DJANGO UNCHAINED (MA)
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Quentin Tarantino foreshadowed his new, confronting, exhilarating movie in his previous one. There is a scene in his alternative-universe-of-World War II film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), in which a Nazi officer playing a parlour game, not only gets the right answer - King Kong - but also hands out a lesson in allegory. King Kong, he says, brought to America in chains, is the very emblem of the African-American experience.
What looks like a typical Tarantino diversion - stepping away from the main narrative for a didactic popular culture moment - turns out to have been much more than an aside. It's the main game in Django Unchained.
This is, inevitably, a movie steeped in movies: Tarantino wants to pay tribute to films he loves and actors he admires. But he's doing it with a gleeful purpose - he's not simply reclaiming maligned genres, or making B-movie tropes cool: he's holding up a blood-spattered funhouse mirror to America's past.
Django Unchained is a spaghetti western-blaxploitation hybrid with the lot. And like Inglourious Basterds, it's a viscerally brutal, unnervingly entertaining work with serious intentions that, among other things sets out to reclaim history. It's a stronger film, however, sharper and unburdened by sluggish, extended set-pieces.
Django Unchained is set in pre-Civil War America. Christoph Waltz, the terrifying Nazi officer of Inglourious Basterds, makes an early appearance as Dr King Schultz, a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. He drives a wagon topped by a giant, bobbling tooth, a comic image that gives a misleading impression of his capacities. To help him find his current targets - a trio of brothers - Schultz is in search of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who can identify them for him.
Schultz seems an unlikely enabling figure for Django. But he is, it turns out, an enlightened man. His contempt for the institution of slavery is all the more convincing because it is expressed with such offhand certainty. He wants Django to pass as his slave for the time being, but he offers him his freedom once their work is done.
Schultz and Django set out on a further mission. It's an expedition to Candyland, a plantation presided over by the fastidious, gloating Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose notion of combining business and pleasure is to pit slaves against each other in deadly ''Mandingo fights''. Candie has a house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is the most unsettling figure of the movie. It's a complex, risky role - a slave is the hero of the film and is also, arguably, its ultimate villain.
Stephen knows himself to be more perceptive than his master in certain key ways, but he also identifies completely with him, and looks out for his interests at all times. He's a greater danger, in a sense, to Django, than anyone else in the film. And Jackson embraces the role with a terrifying energy and certainty.
Performances are always a pleasure in a Tarantino film. Waltz's Schultz has some of the bravura qualities of his turn in Inglourious Basterds, but it's a more nuanced role. DiCaprio gives an oddly graceful depiction of sadism. And Foxx is undemonstratively impressive. Django comes into himself with gradual assurance and authority.
But Tarantino has not done enough with his principal female character, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She feels like a goal, an intention, rather than a figure of any substance.
And for someone so good at casting, he has an unfortunate blind spot: he gives himself annoying cameos.