While across the hall in another theater Abraham Lincoln and his Team of Rivals debate about the possibility of emancipation and use the legal process and a bloody Civil War to achieve that end, the title character of Quentin Tarantino’s incredible Django Unchained has a different method. Kill slavers. Make it bloody. And make it painful. History and Steven Spielberg tell us that it was Lincoln’s method that eventually got the job done, but I’ll be damned if Django’s way isn’t a lot more cathartic.
It is an interesting fact that Lincoln and Django Unchained were released in the same year, within a matter of weeks, and it isn't wrong to wonder if this is a sign that America is finally willing to tackle the subject of slavery head-on. One can only hope that is the case. Cinematically, it is an equally wonderful thing that we get the chance to see so clearly that Big Issues can be tackled in many, many, big ways. Anyone who dismisses Tarantino’s film as just another pulp fiction revenge film (though if that is all it is, it is enough) is missing the very Big Way he approaches Django's story.
And what a story it is – the film opens with the title character as one of several nameless slaves in chains being forced on a long march on bare feet from one owner to the next in the dead of winter. That the star, Jamie Foxx, is barely recognizable or even noticeable among his company is most likely intentional, just as the de-personalization of slaves was the very intentional method by which a majority of whites managed to sleep at night for hundreds of years as they and their neighbors perpetrated unspeakable horrors on other humans. After an incongruous German in a tooth-festooned buggy shows up to “parlay” with the slave's captors (James Remar and James Russo), killing one and leaving the other to be dealt with by his former “property”, Django gets a horse, a winter coat, and most importantly, a name.
What follows is the most linear of Tarantino’s movies. This time around the director forgoes his usual time-shifts and digressions to focus on Django and his long journey to claim his life, identity, and wife (played by Kerry Washington). Naturally, being a Tarantino revenge movie (his third in a trilogy that began with Kill Bill and continued with the alternative-history Inglourious Basterds), this involves a great deal of violence and language that will certainly offend many people, as it is intended to do.
It is wrong, however, to think that violent catharsis is the only aim or method of Django Unchained. Instead, this is arguably Tarantino’s first attempt at making mythology. The sequence of events in Django are straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. After Django receives his “call to adventure,” shedding his former passivity to go on a quest, his Merlin/Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (played with charisma and humanity by Christoph Waltz) in turn provides him with talismans in the form of guns and a horse. In Django’s hands these guns are supernatural – that a man who would never have been allowed near weaponry (or a horse) of any kind is such an exceptional marksman and natural rider proves this. Django is then able to "cross the threshold" by dispatching his former slave-masters, the Brittle Brothers (Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, and M.C. Gainey), and rather than disappearing back into obscurity, goes on to a greater quest – the rescue of his wife, Broomhilda, from her current captors. Certainly the fact that “Hildy” is (phonetically) named after one of the daughters of Wotan, King of the Gods, is a clear tip-off that she is a princess in distress and the worthy object of any hero’s quest.
Likewise, it should come as no surprise that there are trials along the way. After his initial assistance in claiming the bounty of the Brittle Brothers, Django is taken on as apprentice and partner in bounty hunting by Schultz, and through a series of trials (including the attempted revenge of a group of wannabe Klansmen led by Don Johnson) and the collection of many more bounties, Django eventually learns that the villain he must defeat comes in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCarprio). Candie is not only the guardian of his own protected kingdom (“Candieland”) and damsel Broomhilda, but also the sadistic owner of “mandingo fighters” (slaves forced to fight to the death by their owners for sport), and the lord of his own dragon/Darth Vader in the form of self-proclaimed “house n----r” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Naturally, Django succeeds. I suppose that's a spoiler, but you can’t make a good revenge movie without the hero getting his revenge, and you can’t make a Hero’s Journey without the mentor figure eventually dying, leaving the hero on his own to use the skills he acquired. The rescue of Broomhilda turns out not to be the ultimate goal of the quest – in truth, what both Django and Broomhilda are questing for is their own agency, which comes to them only after a literal trial by fire in the form of the ultimate destruction of Candieland and all of its evil.
Of course, this simple retelling of the plot can not possibly prepare the audience for the levels of gore, violence, and profanity contained within, though familiarity with Tarantino’s other work will probably suffice. It also does no justice to the uniformly excellent performances by the entire cast of actors. As usual, minor roles are filled by a parade of stars and former stars that give the audience the pleasure of saying, “Hey, wasn’t that-“ every few minutes. First there is the aforementioned Don Johnson, naturally called “Big Daddy” and making the most of every moment of his time dressed up like Colonel Sanders. Then there is Jonah Hill as a comically inept Klansman, and Lee Horsley(!) as a corrupt Sheriff, and Tom Wopat(!!) as a Marshall. And Russ Tamblyn! And Michael Parks! And Robert Carradine! And Bruce Dern! And on and on and on. There is even Walton Goggins, who is simultaneously appearing in that other movie about slavery across the way.
Every one of these actors has an absolute ball being as ugly or villainous as necessary, but the two A-List actors who feature as the main villains of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, reach new heights (or depths) in their acting careers playing completely against type. DiCaprio rarely has the opportunity to play an unabashed bad guy, and it is testament to his performance that he makes your skin crawl from the first moment he appears on screen to the time he is finally dispatched. Pay special attention to the scene where, in anger, he crushes a wine glass in his hand. That was unplanned, and the blood is real, but DiCaprio remains committed throughout and never breaks character.
Jackson, on the other hand, finally gets to play something other than his archetypal badass character, and his willingness to deglamorize himself as an evil version of the guy on your box of rice lets him prove that he actually does have more than one note to play. His is a quieter evil, and Jackson manages to portray that evil with nuance and menace even while shuffling along with a cane and white hair.
Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington as the Hero and his Princess both do an exceptional job of making you feel genuine emotion for them, and Foxx especially shouldn't be overlooked simply because he underplays his stoic-by-design character. It is in the scenes when he is most silent that you can see exactly what is going on behind his eyes as he must ingratiate himself into enemy territory and in some cases stand idly by while others are destroyed in front of him.
Naturally, the very frequent use of the “n word” has made a lot of people very uncomfortable, and it is worthwhile that it be discussed and argued as much as necessary. However, people should feel uncomfortable -- that is, in fact, the point. At no time did I feel it was being used in a way that was historically inaccurate. It’s worth noting that the few occasions we have seen slavery depicted on screen in all its brutality have been on television, where such language is not permitted. Like it or not, the word “nigger” is a fact of history, and if it makes some white audiences squirm then it is as it should be. (I should point out, strictly anecdotally, that the audience I saw Django Unchained with was majority black (I was one of only four white people in the audience, by my count), and though I didn't hear much reaction to the use of that particular word, I did hear quite a lot of cheering every time a white person got blown to bits. Which, again, is as it should be, I think.)
Another facet of the movie that I imagine people will take a great deal of offense to is just how funny it is in places. The scenes with the Klansmen, for example, or Jackson’s shuffling obsequiousness before he reveals how truly evil he is, provoke genuine laughter, as does Django's initial choice in clothing when he is finally allowed to dress himself for the first time. And then they make you uncomfortable for laughing. I am not sure that Tarantino should be condemned for making people feel uncomfortable about this period of history or for knowing how to deftly release the tension whenever it is necessary. At its best, some of his slapstick ranks with Mel Brooks’s work in The Producers and Blazing Saddles, which I imagine would be condemned today by the same people who think that there is no place for humor in Tarantino’s films.
It feels wrong to get through an entire review without going into detail about the excellent camera work, the great editing, the remarkable-as-usual anachronistic soundtrack, or the conscious sense of homage that Tarantino brings to every one of his idiosyncratic scenes. But we know what to expect from him, so there’s no real point in dissecting each camera angle. Needless to say, you can tell this is a Tarantino film, and each choice is deliberate and largely successful.
In conclusion, if you want to see history as it (basically) was, you will be well-served by seeing Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln. If you want to see history as perhaps it ought to have been, you owe it to yourself to see Django Unchained. Frankly, I think each film informs the other wonderfully, and also informs audiences – not just of useful facts, but also of important feelings, including a very justifiable rage and a pain that the country is only just now getting around to confronting.