Slavery is bad. We all know that. And yet, America still chooses to overlook its barbaric past in favor of a future rich with culture and diversity. But how can you ignore something as inherently evil as genocide? How do you justify the severe mistreatment of an entire race? Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, chooses not to answer these questions. Instead it asks “why didn’t anyone think slavery was bad?” Set in a hateful world that’s oblivious to its own hatred, Django embraces the sadistic nature of its characters and explores the cruel morality of our world. And it does so with such an explosive style that it’s damn near impossible to turn away. Though it does become overtly excessive and self-indulgent along the way, the film is injected with more than enough violence and humor to transform its touchy subject into a wildly entertaining feature. This is history re-examined and re-told through Tarantino, and it is a bloody good time at the movies.
The plot of the film is fairly straightforward: With the help of a bounty hunter, a former slave embarks on a mission to rescue his wife from a cruel plantation owner. That’s pretty much it. It’s a revenge fantasy in the form of a spaghetti western with the decay of the Deep South as its backdrop. The real story, however, comes out of the characters. Django lies at the heart of it all as a man who witnesses the injustice all around him, but is forced to keep walking on by. It’s only when Schultz offers him his freedom that he allows himself to release the anger seething inside. And from there he gradually becomes the vengeful soul that’s out to get even and then some. Schultz, the enigmatic bounty hunter at his side is the perfect companion for Django. Essentially an outsider, he doesn’t fully understand the prejudices against black people. In fact, he’s appalled that everyone else is appalled. This allows him to connect with Django on a personal level, forging an uncanny relationship that deepens even as the bodies start to pile up. But aside from killing people, at least when he’s got the proper documentation for it, he also finds satisfaction in giving people their freedom. That makes him a hero in his own right, even if he is slightly wicked and demented. And together they set out on the crooked path of murder and vengeance, where their brutality is completely justified, if not necessary.
Tarantino has rounded out quite the ensemble here, and it’s perfectly warranted since this is such a dense script where characters are constantly manipulating or deceiving one another. Christoph Waltz, still hot off of Tarantino’s last film Inglorious Basterds, comes in front and center as the charismatic bounty hunter full of panache and wit. He can talk his way out of any situation; nevermind the gunplay (though he does sport a kick-ass contraption under his sleeve). The character Schultz is almost a complete turnaround from Hans Landa – the violent sociopath Waltz previously portrayed in Basterds. Whereas Landa took up a well-mannered persona to hide his sadism, Schultz embraces his inner warmth and playfulness and wears it like a distinguished suit of armor. Sure he’s violent, but at least his smile is sincere, unlike in the character of Calvin Candie, where you’re never quite sure if his kind gestures are genuine or perhaps masking something sinister. Leonardo DiCaprio is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. This is his first time playing the antagonist and he threatens to steal the entire movie. It’s a dastardly villainous performance that makes you forget every single role he’s ever been in. He’s downright despicable, a filthy yet charming creature that relishes in the cruelty and torture of the inferior. Candie could give Hans Landa a run for his money; he may very well be Tarantino’s most brutal character yet. He represents the moral decay of the South and everything that was wrong with America at the time. But what’s even more frustrating about him is how eminently watchable he is. We shouldn’t like him. We should be disgusted by him. And yet, we cannot take our eyes off him.
Let’s not forget about the title character, Django, played by a somewhat reserved Jamie Foxx. He doesn’t really come at you in the same way as Schultz or Candie, rather he’s more reluctant to do so. And it works because he portrays a man who’s been forced into subjugation. He’s essentially a shadow when we first see him, and over the course of the film we see the man re-emerge into the light. There are times though when he fades into the background, specifically in a rapid exchange of words between Schultz and Candie that culminates in an explosive shoot-out. Foxx shines in the more action-packed scenes of the movie, which is odd considering that he has the most emotionally complex arc out of all of the characters. Now, Django may not be the hero we normally see in movies, but in a world where the detestable roam free, he’s the closest thing we have to a decent man. The love for his wife is the only thing that’s driving him, and that seems to make more sense than indulging in our own sadistic capabilities.
With Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino pushes himself both as a filmmaker and storyteller. As of late, he’s been exploring some rather dark historical contexts, and here he plunges straight into the depths of evil. In Basterds, Tarantino shifted the focus away from the Holocaust and flipped it on its head, turning Jews into the unsung heroes of the war. In Django, however, the genocide is very much at the forefront of the film, but not as a means of exploiting the torture of innocent people. Rather, Tarantino uses this initial set up to reveal an even darker subtext; the cost of civilization. The story itself may be highly fictionalized, but the truth of it still lingers. This is how America began, unfortunately. And granted, people at the time believed that slavery wasn’t so bad, that we needed the hands of the inferior to serve the superior willingly. Tarantino puts this concept under the microscope and ponders a glaring question buried deep within our history books: why didn’t anyone think slavery was bad? How did we come to calling ourselves superior while putting others beneath our heel? The film has no problem raising these ethical issues because it’s not under any pressure to answer them. This moral dilemma is something we are still figuring out today, and though we may not have the answer yet, Tarantino pushes us to at least try and observe our early beginnings instead of remaining blind to them.
All controversy aside, Tarantino has crafted a hugely entertaining film. While it’s certainly not made for everyone, there is something for everyone to enjoy. From the eclectic soundtrack to the dynamic cinematography, Tarantino reminds us why he’s a top tier filmmaker. He’s even branched out from his usual trademark techniques to hone in on some surprisingly poetic shots (blood-spattered cotton, two cowboys trudging through a field of snow). Such is unusual coming from him, but never off-putting. Ultimately, it enriches the experience of the film and engages the viewer in the visual narrative. Also this time around, Tarantino employs a series of stylish zooms to enhance a scene, whether it’s a line of dialogue or a key moment in the action. But it’s not a gimmick; rather it functions like a throwback to classic westerns that’s absolutely refreshing to see in a modern day film. Of course, the guy hasn’t completely changed up his style. He still maintains his eye for the aestheticization of violence, and many could argue that he’s outdone himself. The gore is beyond excessive, so much so that it becomes comical and downright silly. However, it works to the film’s advantage by providing a stark contrast between the viciousness of slave owners like Candie versus the sheer brutality of Django’s wrath. You see the distinction because with Django its justifiable vengeance, if there is such a thing, and Tarantino makes it very clear that these characters deserve what’s coming to them.
Even without the violence Tarantino succeeds in drawing up vivid portraits of his characters through idiosyncratic detail. The unmistakable southern accent, the overwhelming racial remarks, along with distinct mannerisms and behavior; every detail is key. You’re fully immersed in this world from beginning to end and you never doubt its authenticity. And surprisingly, Tarantino proves that there’s always room for humor no matter what the subject. This is certainly his funniest script by far. The sheer back and forth between characters are delightfully witty, while other scenes are an absolute riot. They provide some much needed relief from all the obscenities both on and off screen. Tarantino knows when to back off and let the dialogue do the job, but unlike his previous outings, the dialogue here doesn’t seem to hit its stride. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s writing nearly outmatched the story, and you had no problem straying away from the central plot so long as these characters where always talking. And in Basterds, the dialogue worked like a beautiful song with all the different languages mixed together. Here, though, it doesn’t really soar the way it should, except for the main confrontations between characters. Often times it’s just getting from point A to B, other times it feels like excess that could’ve been cut. The film really should be called Tarantino Unchained because he shows no restraint as a storyteller. Certainly some scenes are essential for a character to see through. Most of the time, however, these scenes only succeed in taking up more space. This is his longest feature and you can definitely feel it start to drag. But that’s not to say that the film falters drastically, only slightly. Tarantino keeps things fresh every now and then, introducing one set piece after another that’s usually covered in blood by the end (the dinner scene in particular is explosively violent). So what it may lack in discipline narrative-wise, it more than makes up for in style and execution.
Eight films in and Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a consistently entertaining filmmaker. He doesn’t write films anymore. He creates whole worlds for audiences to delve into all while writing his own history. He can be proud of what he’s crafted here, an epic on slavery that’s not afraid to tackle its own issues. Most movies shy away from the subject matter in fear of opening up the old wounds of the past. But why? Shouldn’t we own up to our own atrocities? And if now’s not the time then when? Tarantino will surely come under a lot of fire for being one of the firsts to do so, and Django will remain in the daunting shadow of controversy for a long time. And that’s unfortunate because most people are too naïve to even give it a chance, to uncover the film’s haunting subtext buried deep beneath layers of entertainment value. Hopefully soon, Django will overcome these obstacles, become the film that it’s meant to be, and finally take on a life of its own. Nevermind what others say. See this movie while you still can.