Well it looks like Quentin Tarantino and I have one thing in common: I think he hates “Gone With The Wind” as much as I do.
“Django Unchained” is a movie that defies any easy, glib description a cinephile like myself can throw at it. But I will say that no movie in 2012 pummeled me as much as this one. When I walked out of the theater I wasn’t yet able to articulate in my mind what I felt about Tarantino’s odyssey of the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his quest for vengeance and his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), which left the preconceived notions of blaxploitation movies, Westerns and Civil War-epics like “Gone With the Wind,” along with dozens of bodies, in the bloody wake of Django’s drive for retribution and freedom.
But now I can say this: “Django Unchained” is a bold, outrageously violent, wildly funny, explosively provocative destruction and corrective of cinema’s old notions of the portrayal the toxic, dehumanizing industry of slavery, all in the guise of a spaghetti Western that owes a heavy debt to Sergio Leone and countless other reference points in the grindhouse collage of Tarantino’s mind. The man is a lunatic that has a mastery of his own craft.
Tarantino has always been criticized for being nothing more than a thief, a sort of DJ who takes pieces of the obscure genre films he treats like holy writ and mashes them together in a hollow, showoff-y manner. I never bought that criticism. Sure, Tarantino borrows from other movies and directors, but he puts them together in a way that makes his films accessible to people who don’t know Sonny Chiba from Sonny Bono and also leaves something for everyone to chew on. “Reservoir Dogs” looked at honor amongst men amid a failed heist. “Pulp Fiction” dealt with criminal low-lifes slowly coming to terms with their individual relationships with morality and decency. “Jackie Brown” used an Elmore Leonard story to explore racism and old age and “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” literally turn gender roles on their head, with empowered women gleefully emasculating the cliched macho icons that dominated midnight theaters in the early ‘7os. These films are reverential, but they aren’t afraid to flip the script on their predecessors, to create a new perspective. It’s what makes one of Tarantino one of our most fascinating and unpredictable auteurs.
“Django Unchained” continues this tradition. The film opens in 1858, when Django is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who recruits Django to help him find the Brittle Brothers and bring them to justice. In return, Schultz promised to grant Django his freedom. Django slowly morphs from a man stripped of his dignity into a confident gunslinger, as the two do battle with the Brittles and a dapper plantation owner named Big Daddy (Don Johnson), leading to a gunfight with Daddy and his legion of pre-Klansmen, whose impaired visibility from their poorly made masks leads to an insanely funny scene that I would put against any comedy released this year. Django convinces Schultz to travel with him to Mississippi to rescue his beloved Broomhilda from the Candieland plantation, whose ruthless owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) trains his slaves for Mandingo fighting, which entails bare-knuckle brawls to the death. In a convoluted plan that has Django and Schultz pretending to be slave owners looking to purchase Mandingo fighters, they infiltrate the plantation.
“Django Unchained” is unusual in how it is entertaining and horrifying at the same time. The first half of the film glides on the effortless charisma and chemistry between Waltz and Foxx. Waltz, just like he did as the inhuman Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” goes through the English language like an overly enthusiastic gymnast, twisting Tarantino’s peerless dialogue into fantastic shapes, creating a character just as indelible as Landa, but on the other side of the humanity spectrum. It’s not by accident that his name is Dr. King, but Schultz does not share Martin Luther’s affinity for non-violence. He trains the uneducated Django not just how to read and dress himself, but how to become a trained killer. In his best performance since “Collateral,” Foxx subtly shows Django’s transformation from a broken slave into an avenging badass worthy of comparison to a Shaft or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, becoming the Siegfried destined to save his beloved Broomhilda from the fiery dungeon in the German folktale Schultz shares with him.
But as absurd and fun as Django and Schultz’s journey to Candieland is, the dark side that always works on the fringes of Tarantino’s work until it explodes with profound repercussions, sets in in the film’s depiction of slavery. I have never seen any film that depicted America’s greatest shame in such clear-eyed and brutal fashion. We see the mazes of scars formed by whippings. Hot boxes that suck the oxygen from already withered bodies. Full-face masks that look like they belong on Hannibal Lecter, that are equipped with spear-tipped metal collars, treating these men and women like feral beasts. The N-word gets spewed out of everyone’s mouth like cannon fire. “Roots” is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s frustrating that it took 97 years after the release of D.W. Griffin’s KKK-supporting “Birth of a Nation” for an American film to present slavery in such a manner. In an age where Hollywood movies such as “The Blind Side” and “The Help” soft-pedal the conversation of race in favor of sentimental tear-jerking, “Django” pummels us with our nation’s past.
While still keeping with the darkly funny, irreverent tone, the film also shows how slavery is thought of as a business, and those who partake are desensitized to it. Django bristles at having to pretend to be a black “slaver” looking for fighters in order to buy his wife her freedom, and that he is forced to watch and even dole out abuse to other slaves to stay in the good graces Calvin Candie, an antebellum demon played with sadistic relish by DiCaprio in the performance of his career, is thrilled by the sight of two slaves beating each other to death in these brawls. With the wave of his hand he has a runaway torn apart by dogs. He may have sexual desires for his sister, and he shows how generations of white superiority can suppress any and all empathy for these black victims. In the lengthy dinner-table scene, where Tarantino showcases his stone-cold mastery of building suspense around the conflicting motivations of his characters and his unmistakable dialogue that is so good it’s almost like a form of music, DiCaprio’s monologue detailing the anatomy of a black man’s skull shows how Candie himself doesn’t even fully understand why he is the way he is; slavery and subjugation are part of the air he breathes, rotting his soul along with his tobacco-stained teeth.
But the movie’s gutsiest, most troubling creation is not Calvin who is not even the most villainous character in “Django.” That would be his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackson, buried under prosthetics that make him look like the worst Uncle Ben-esque, minstrel show caricature, plays the epitome of an Uncle Tom who lives to kiss the ass of his master and belittle the other slaves. At first you pity Stephen, but pity is replaced by disgust, as his willingness to be subserviant masks a Machiavellian soullessness. Jackson is extraordinary in showing how the horrors of slavery warp the oppressors and the oppressed, symbolizing Tarantino’s unflinching eye for holding everyone involved in the prosperity of slavery accountable. Making the villain of a movie about slavery another slave? That, ladies and gentlemen, is ballsy as hell.
“Django Unchained” is the farthest thing from a smooth ride. At 165 minutes it does feel bloated at times, especially in a totally unnecessary scene involving Django and a bunch of Australian miners, one of which is played by Tarantino himself, who really needs to stop operating under the delusion that he is an actor. Also, it was an interesting choice in presenting the relationship between Django and Broomhilda in a series of wordless fantasies, and Washington is very effective as an almost silent victim of slavery, but it’s disappointing that a writer who is in a class by himself when it comes to creating well-developed female characters, at least among male filmmakers, gives Broomhilda such little to do.
But “Django Unchained” more than pays off in the end, despite the occasional lapses in narrative discipline. There is something deeply thrilling in watching Django tear through the institution of slavery, set to a fire-breathing mashup of James Brown and 2Pac, along with original music from John Legend and even the immortal Ennio Morricone. Years of oppression lie on the floor, soaking in blood. Some may be troubled by the film’s romantic view of revenge, and the unsatiated bloodlust that overtakes Django as his transformation is complete. But for everyone else who has followed Quentin Tarantino into the wild blue yonder over the past twenty years as he flips the script on how we view cinematic temples. In the film’s final sequence, which is a direct homage to the ending of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” years of turning a blind eye over this country’s greatest sin, literally goes up in flames. With “Django Unchained,” as wild as ungainly as it may be, Tarantino once again wants us to feel the burn.