Django Unchained, the newest film from the excessive and unrelenting Quentin Tarantino, brutally details the horrors of slavery through the caricaturized lens of the filmmaker who is responsible for Inglorious Basterds. In addition to introducing the world to the brilliant Christoph Waltz, what made Basterds so compelling was the fact that it took the freedom of cinematic make-believe, and rewrote history. While many parts of Django surpass Basterd’s heinousness, and considering it is documenting arguably the most unthinkable portion of our nation’s history, Tarantino uses this same formula to produce an over-the- top, ferociously violent, wildly entertaining, shamefully humbling, almost cartoonish ode to spaghetti westerns.
Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave being transported across Texas in 1858 after he and his German-speaking wife, Broomhilda, are sold separately as punishment for running away. The film opens with Dr. King Schultz– Christoph Waltz in essentially the same calculated, absurdly articulate role as Inglorious Basterd’s Col. Hans Landa– riding up to the chain gang posed as a dentist. He is really a bounty hunter, and needs Django to identify the wanted Brittle brothers, the same men who whipped, branded, and separated Django and Broomhilda (in one of the film’s many cringe-worthy scenes). The two track the brothers down, and in a wonderfully satisfying act of vengeance, Django gives them a taste of their own medicine.
What Django Unchained is primarily about, however, is the rescue of Broomhilda, who they discover is currently in Mississippi under the control of Calvin Candie, played with ferocious flair by Leonardo Dicaprio. A German immigrant, Dr. Shultz disagrees with the concept of slavery and treats Django as an equal. The most touching moments of the film come when he clothes, trains, and mentors Django. “Why you care what happens to me?” he asks. “I’ve never given a man his freedom before. I guess I feel somewhat responsible,” Dr. Shultz confesses. He wants to help Django find his wife, so after many months of bounty hunting, they pose as experts of mandingo (to-the- death bare-knuckle slave boxing), and pretend to be interested in Candie’s best fighters to get close to Broomhilda. The thought of posing as a black salver, as Django puts it, nauseates him, but in order to save his wife, he wholly commits to the charade, becoming intolerably arrogant towards everyone at Candieland, the sinister name of Calvin’s large plantation.
This movie is a hard mix of cartoonishness and intense power. Like many of Tarantino’s finest, Django Unchained is concerned about the aesthetic just as much as the narrative; he allows the two to compliment and even dictate each other. With a delicate burst of blood slowly splattering across white cotton plants, or a meticulous, dialogue-less few seconds in which he shows the delicate pouring– sculpting, even– of two beers, it’s as if the director is creating a moving painting. There are many lightening-fast zooms on characters faces, simulating the effect of a quick-draw shootout.
Of course, the controversy surrounding this film arises from Tarantino’s no holds barred depiction of slavery, which includes a very liberal use of the “n-word.” While objectively the offense taken after seeing Django seems well justified, the film never dips into a territory of mockery. Each one of its 165 minutes is harder to watch than the next, but he shows the horrors of this time in American history, not for shock value alone, but instead to create the cruel, blood-thirsty world that our heroes must survive (especially considering one of them is a freed slave two years before the Civil War). This movie is funny, but watching it in
theaters inevitably invites an awkward dance of “should-I-laugh, should-I-not” moments, as its most amusing lines are also littered with racist slurs. But one must remember the mad genius who’s responsible for this sadistically fun picture. Tarantino is simply doing what he does best here: creating a highly stylized, violent world where its most graphic unpleasant- ries are vital to the narrative.