With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino repeats a lot of what made Inglourious Basterds such a success, except this time he sometimes cuts deeper. He switches his setting from 1940s France to the antebellum South, where he can combine exploitation action with commentary about the nature of violence itself. This is the most disturbing film he’s made yet, and not just because he grapples with race in a superficial way. Despite the blood-spattered coda, Django’s inevitable revenge feels hollow and devoid of triumph.
In the desolate Texas winter, Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) has a flair for theatricality. A German bounty hunter posing as a dentist, Schulz frees the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from his captors, and after Django helps Schulz identify a lucrative bounty, the pair forms an unlikely partnership. They work as bounty hunters until the winter is over — Django has perfect aim, naturally — and in the spring they head to Mississippi to save Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio), a pretentious plantation owner. Schulz must help Django because he cannot get over the coincidence that saving Broomhilda would amount to an American update of a classic German fairy tale.
Until Django and Schulz head to Mississippi, Django is essentially a comedy with flashes of over-the-top action. The bounty hunters enter a dangerous area, outsmart racist white people, and leave without a scratch on them. Posing as investors in mandingo wrestling, their first encounter with Candie is genuinely shocking. Schulz and Candie watch as two large black men beat each other to death and the controlled camera-work forces us to take the blood-battered, torn flesh. The scene is all the more disturbing because Candie is having a great time while Schulz must pretend to (Django hangs out at the bar). So when Django finally exacts his revenge, Tarantino puts the audience in Candie’s position: we’re meant to be entertained by the violence even though we recoiled earlier. We’re culpable in a world of brutality, just like his characters.
Django Unchained is at its best when Tarantino builds suspense through coiled, “civilized” conversation. There is a long dinner scene where the heroes must hide their intentions from Candie, and it’s complicated by Broomhilda and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the plantation’s head slave. Stephen is arguably the movie’s true villain: he immediately resents Django’s freedom, and buys into the slavery system as much as Candie, if not more. Still, Tarantino only has enough room to consider slavery as a binary. The characters are either progressively-minded abolitionists, or they take slavery to its cruel logical conclusions. His characters may say “nigger” all the time, yet the epithet adds more rhetorical rhythm than it does historical context. The most suspenseful scenes are also the most superficial, so Tarantino essentially co-opts a classic American genre so that his characters can pretend to be polite to each other. His approach is terrific fun and not much else.
Tarantino’s kooky dialogue always resonates with the right actor, and there is little surprise that those who worked with him before have the least amount of difficulty sinking into their roles. Minus the anti-Semitism, Schulz is similar to Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa. Both men share a delight in precise language, and are guided by their convictions, which they hide through a sense of propriety. When Schulz finally acts with his conscience, the moment is abrupt and weirdly satisfying. Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, is terrific as heartless Uncle Tom with a sadist streak. His scenes with Django and Candie are uncomfortable because Jackson disappears into the character; it’s his best work since Black Snake Moan. Given the competent, unremarkable work of the newcomers, Foxx included, the only surprise is Leonardo DiCaprio. This is his first time as a villain, yet he plays Candie as if he’s the only true gentleman on his plantation. He’s wholly convincing as a slick monster, and DiCaprio has a future with character roles as opposed to leading ones.
As of this writing, IMDb lists Django Unchained 59th on its top 250 list. Clearly Tarantino’s fans are zealous, and after the uneven complexity of his latest, I can’t help but wonder if he’s frustrated by that fact. Django Unchained is a deceptive movie, one that uses a simple revenge arc to challenge us into questioning why, exactly, exploitation is so entertaining. Once again, Tarantino subverts and upholds genre better than any other working filmmaker. The only pity is that he doesn’t explore our ugliest history with the same feverish depth.