Quentin Tarantino, it turns out, had 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 African-American experience.
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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, and to make the most of the kinetic, sensory energy of cinema itself. 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.
|Genre||Action/Adventure, Drama, Western|
|Screen Writer||Quentin Tarantino|
|Actors||Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson|
|OFLC rating||MA 15+|
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave living in the Deep South after having been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). When Django is held for a slave auction, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, frees Django from his vicious owners (James Remar and James Russo) and gives him the option of hunting down and killing the Brittle Brothers, a ruthless gang of killers whom only Django has seen. In return, Schultz will free Django from slavery completely and help rescue Broomhilda from the plantation of the francophile owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
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.
The film 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, an endearing and enduringly comic image that gives a misleading impression of his capacities, although it's an indication of how much enjoyment we are to get from his performance. To help him find his current targets, a trio of brothers, Schultz is in search of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who knew them and 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, however, for the time being, but he offers him his freedom once their work is done. It is an opportunity that Django takes, then transforms.
Schultz and Django set out on a further mission, one with Wagnerian, epic resonances. 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 notable 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. Di Caprio is more relaxed than usual: it's an oddly graceful depiction of sadism. And Foxx, in the least showy of the lead roles, is quietly commanding and undemonstratively impressive. Django comes into himself with gradual assurance and authority.
Tarantino has not done enough – surprisingly, for someone who writes strong roles for women – with his principal female character, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She feels like a presence, a goal, an intention, rather than a figure of any substance.
And for someone who is so good at casting, he has an unfortunate blind spot: he gives himself annoying little cameos. In Django Unchained, this includes an Australian bad guy, with a wavering Ocker accent and a relentless smirk. It's an indulgence he shouldn't allow himself.