I am not a huge Tarantino fan. I was when he started out with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but then he went through a phase that I can only call his “look at me, ma! I’m a Hollywood director” period, where he got funding to make whatever was in his adolescent head. Then came the critically acclaimed Inglourious Basterds, and I swore I’d never go to another of his films, ever! But, something inexplicably drew me to see his latest, Django Unchained, and I can only say, I forgive you Quentin. It turns out to be a very entertaining mix of Mel Brooks, Sergio Leone, and Gordon Parks, with a lot of gore (and the controversially prodigious use of “the N word.”)
The film opens with a group of shackled slaves being herded through the cold night by a couple of men on horseback. In the middle of nowhere they run into a dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is looking to buy one particular slave named Django (Jamie Foxx.) It turns out that Schultz is a bounty hunter, and there is a big reward for the Brittle Brothers, men that Django knows very well. So they strike a bargain. If Django leads Schultz to the brothers, he earns his freedom and some money. Django tells Schultz that the evil Brittle Bros. were the extra-cruel overseers on the last plantation where he was owned, and that they branded and sold him and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) after they tried to run away. All Django wants is to find her again. The German name peaks Schultz’s interest, and since every German child knows the story of Brunhilde, he tells the tale to Django. The mythic Brunhilde was condemned to live on a mountain surrounded by a ring of fire and a dragon, and only a true hero could rescue her. The rest of the movie is Django becoming that hero, as he and Schultz hunt the bad guys and ultimately track down Broomhilda.
Jamie Foxx does an excellent job of transforming from a shattered slave to an emancipating hero. And the film is filled with great characters, particularly Waltz’s Dr. Shultz and DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie. Don Johnson is along for some comedy as Big Daddy, and Samuel L. Jackson commands the screen as Stephen, the Uncle Tom who seems to rule the Candie house and sets off the requisite finale bloodbath. The movie clocks in at 165 minutes, but moves along so fast you hardly notice. And it has a fabulous soundtrack; I particularly liked the gangsta rap accompaniment to one of the biggest gun battles. Tarantino balances a lot of pretty bleak stuff in Django Unchained with some very funny scenes. And underneath the gore and silliness are some interesting themes of brotherhood, justice, and redemption. Schultz may be a sadistic bounty hunter, but he has an intense hatred of slavery and slavers. And Django who steps into the role of the lone cowboy of the spaghetti western ultimately stands up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. Yes, it is a slave revenge fantasy, and it’s really entertaining. I’d recommend it for those that can take the gore and appreciate a lot of references to older genres thrown together. This ain’t no chick flick, but I wouldn’t let that scare you away.
[For those who want to examine the broader cultural underpinnings of this film, here is a thought provoking piece.]