A typical Quentin Tarantino film can take on a life of its own while still showing keen awareness of its cinematic influences. This could explain why his newest effort, Django Unchained, is a slight letdown; we know he’s paying tribute to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s, and we relish the style and the numerous subtle insider references, and yet there’s never the sense that he’s trying to make it into anything more than what it so obviously is. But I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. Tarantino went for twisted entertainment, and he achieved it. The film is brash, darkly funny, and at times disgustingly violent. Because of its racial content, some have already found it deeply offensive. Perhaps it is. I know that there’s a fine line between satire and cruelty. I’d like to think I’m enlightened enough to see that line each and every time, but unfortunately, I’m not.
Tarantino, known for labyrinthian plotlines, here constructs something that’s exceedingly simple. Taking place in the late 1850s, we meet Django (Jamie Foxx), who, at the start of the film, is but one slave in a chain gang being transported across the country. Into his life enters a German named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist who became a bounty hunter. He frees Django, kills one of his buyers, and leaves the other buyer at the mercy of the remaining chained slaves, who without hesitation beat him to death. Schultz needs Django because he’s the only one who has seen the faces of Schultz’s next targets, killer brothers who have a sizeable price on their heads. In due time, Django becomes Schultz’s bounty-hunting associate. Although every reward poster they carry around says “Dead or Alive,” it seems they both prefer their targets dead. This is especially true for Django, who relishes the idea of legally killing white people for money.
In exchange for helping identify the killer brothers, Schultz agrees to emancipate Django and help him track down the man who bought his wife at a slave auction. This would be Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who, for reasons left somewhat obscure, is able to speak German. The man who bought her is soon revealed to be Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mississippi plantation owner. At his plantation, an ornate and sprawling abode playfully dubbed Candyland, male slaves are forced into beating each other to death for sport, while the female slaves are forced into prostitution. Living with Candie is his sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette), the quintessential Southern belle, and his elderly head slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who inexplicably shares in the racism of his white owners.
When Schultz and Django arrive at Candyland, they masquerade as potential buyers of a slave fighter. But upon seeing the looks exchanged by Django and Broomhilda, Stephen begins to suspect that the two are somehow acquainted. Without delving too deeply into the ramifications of this, let’s just say that the final act could arguably rival a torture porn movie in the sheer scope of its goreiness. Honestly, it has been quite some time since I’ve seen such copious amounts of blood gush from open wounds, most of them made by bullets. I cannot sit here and say that I enjoyed looking at it. However, I certainly saw what Tarantino was aiming for, and yes, I even admired some of the technical skills involved. I’ve seen more than a few behind-the-scenes featurettes on various movies; it takes a lot of work to make stage blood behave properly.
Tarantino’s sense of humor isn’t always my cup of tea; I would wager that most audiences would find nothing innately funny about shooting a man’s nether regions into a gooey pulp. Having said that, there’s a scene with a sizeable group of clansmen, one of whom is Jonah Hill in a cameo role, that had me laughing hysterically. As they prepare to chase after Django and Schultz, their rousing lynch-mob speech escalates into an argument over how difficult it is to see out of the eye holes cut into their white hoods. There’s also a far less inflammatory but equally funny recurring gag of Schultz’s horse bowing every time it’s introduced by name. Regarding Schultz, he’s given his fair share of witty dialogue, which isn’t to say that he’s an incurable wisecracker; the way he speaks is amusingly matter-of-fact, most notably when he has to explain at length why he has just killed his latest target and how it was perfectly within his province.
All the actors give good performances, but as far as I’m concerned, the real standout is DiCaprio, whose take on Candie is just overplayed enough to be engaging but not so overplayed that he crosses the line into cruel, needless parody. With both his accent and expensive wardrobe ever so prominently featured, he can never not be a genteel Southern gentleman, not even when he threatens to bash Broomhilda’s hand with a hammer. This is, of course, yet another extension of Tarantino’s brand of humor, which he has gotten away with and will probably continue to get away with for as long as he writes and directs. Although Django Unchained isn’t his best film, as it relies too much on homage and not enough on originality, it’s still a bold and stylish effort that achieves everything it was intended to achieve.