Django Unchained begins with a scene of a chain gang of slaves (each bearing scars on their backs) being marched through a barren Texas landscape. They run into a dentist driving a wagon with a giant tooth on the roof, attached by a large spring, causing the tooth to bounce and bob like a toy. This contrast of brutal realism and oddball silliness sets the tone for the rest of the film. Django Unchained is a strange mix of not only realism and comedy, but also grindhouse violence, spaghetti westerns, and exploitation films, not to mention director Quentin Tarantino’s flair for dialogue. Although you would think those elements could not work together smoothly, I left the theater very pleased with the film and no longer surprised by the number of nominations it has received.
The slave-buying dentist is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German who has actually switched from dentistry to bounty hunting. He is interested in buying one of the slaves because he needs someone to identify the Brittle brothers, one of many bounties he is pursuing. And that slave is of course, Django (Jamie Foxx).
As Schultz hates slavery, he makes a deal with Django: identify the Brittle brothers, and he will grant Django his freedom. Faced with the potential to not only get his freedom but also get paid to “kill white folks,” Django jumps at the chance.
We then learn that King has a flair for the dramatic, both in his language and his actions. He’s part con man, part bounty hunter, and terribly proficient at killing. And, it turns out, Django is a natural at the bounty hunting business. King decides to partner up with Django and to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a francophile dandy of a plantation owner, who is a fan of mandingo fighting, phrenology, and all other sorts of distasteful pursuits. Of course, when their rescue mission is discovered by Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), an Uncle Tom-like house slave, everything goes to hell in a brutally violent climax.
The fascinating thing about Django Unchained is that nearly every character is a terrible person. Even those with a noble goal take a sadistic pleasure in achieving that goal through violent means. And yet we root for some of them and despise others. I heard a story that DiCaprio took the part because he was so disgusted by Candie. And I can see a similar appeal for Jackson to play his character as well–Stephen is vile and cruel, but he is not simply a stereotype (although he gets perilously close sometimes). Tarantino has created a cast of well-defined bastards, and he takes pleasure in watching them collide. I was also impressed with Foxx’s performance. Watch his eyes and gestures, and listen to his speech patterns when the movie begins. Then watch how these features transform as he changes from a slave to a badass of the Clint-Eastwood-man-without-a-name ranks.
There are some genuinely funny moments in this film, especially Tarantaino’s treatment of the Ku Klux Klan, turning them into Klowns. But there are also many painful moments, as Tarantino forces viewers to witness the brutality of slavery. Of course, the realism of certain moments is offset by the pulpy violence of other moments. But the climax–one that paints the town red–serves a catharsis after Tarantino and DiCaprio and Jackson have ratcheted up the tension to a horrible degree. Even the use of anachronistic music (James Brown, Rick Ross, etc.) seems fitting because it helps viewers release their tension, by pulling them back from the pain of the antebellum South.
I think it’s obvious I liked the film. I think it was one of Tarantino’s most mature films, actually, and I hope he does well this awards season. But (in Reading Rainbow style), you don’t have to take my word for it. I saw this with my wife, who is not the biggest Tarantino fan (she did not like Kill Bill, 1 or 2–our last QT adventure), but she walked out a fan of Django Unchained too. I hope you do the same.