Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, assists a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), and in return, the Bounty Hunter will help Django get revenge on the cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has kidnapped his wife and seeks to put Django in chains once more.
The second in what might wind up being Quentin Tarantino’s 'retribution trilogy’, Django Unchained—like its predecessor, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds—serves up a typically heady stew of boy’s-own adventure and historical revisionism. Like that film, it operates within a traditional Hollywood genre. (Its maker takes care to brand it a 'southern’, but it’s as unabashedly a western as IG was a war flick.) Yet it’s unusually audacious in its treatment of it—not least, in its desire to simultaneously aim for moral gravity and breezy irreverence, a notoriously fine line to walk. Chaplin managed it—just—with The Great Dictator, as did Lubitsch two years later, with To Be or Not to Be. More recent examples, however, prove harder to come by, I suspect because irony and sincerity are such fundamentally irreconcilable impulses. And ours is nothing, alas, if not an ironic age.
the filmmaking here is some of the most fluent of Tarantino’s career
A wandering dentist (Christoph Waltz)—in reality, a seasoned bounty hunter—frees the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to help him track down a trio of brothers with a price on their heads. Django proves so useful in this quest that Schultz subsequently takes him on as a partner—and promises, once the winter is over, to help him find his wife, who has been sold to one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notoriously brutal plantation owner. Together, the German and his freeman journey to 'Candyland’, in Mississippi, where they must pose as traders in Mandingo fighters to gain entry and rescue the girl.
Notwithstanding its flagrant debts to Sergio Corbucci (those abrupt, vertiginous zooms, the snowbound, 'Great Silence’-like vistas), the filmmaking here is some of the most fluent of Tarantino’s career. His partnership with cinematographer Robert Richardson has paid off handsomely, resulting in a far richer and more ambitious visual palette than before—and Tarantino has responded with some of his most striking compositions to date, static (Django and Schultz, in half-shot, riding slowly past ranks of chained slaves) as well as dynamic (Django, later, galloping alone, a rifle clenched high in his fist, while behind him a charnel mound burns . . .).
What he excels in, though, are moments of profound unease couched beneath surface civility; were he French, you sense he could do a truly corrosive family drama. The dinner at Candyland is as filled with dread as was the opening sequence in Basterds, a network of tensions that finally, inevitably descends into carnage—a bloodbath so absolute, it fully merits the term 'Tarantinoesque’. By the end, the walls of Candyland resemble the killing floor of an abattoir.
Impolitic though it might be to suggest it, there’s something extremely satisfying about the violence here—though, for my money, it resides less in seeing these racist thugs get their comeuppance (of which, more below), than in the director’s staging of it. Tarantino’s fetishistic adherence to the past is never so apparent as in his handling of physical action, and his willingness to hold a shot so that you understand precisely what is at stake. No disorientating, subliminal editing here, no careless crossing of the line: instead, you get a kinetic sense of forces and vectors and choreography. Actual physics, real time.
As such, you sense that he’s practicing an increasingly lost art, of actually blocking scenes with actors, and devising sequences to occupy a physical space. Rather than just shooting a ton of coverage—a la Michael Bay, or Brett Ratner, or any one of a hundred others—and stitching it together, sloppily, incoherently, in the edit suite.
At 165 minutes, this is a lengthy ride, yet while certain scenes could undoubtedly be trimmed with little harm to the storytelling, the film never feels bloated or tedious. A showman by instinct (rather than a theoretician, like Soderbergh, or a journeyman, like Linklater), Tarantino always offers enough of interest in the frame, at either a visual or verbal level, to hold our attention. And his indulgence of actors enables him to garner some indelible performances. Here, the honours go to DiCaprio’s slaveowner—rotten right down to his teeth—and Samuel L. Jackson’s Steven (a reference, surely, to Stepin Fetchit?), perhaps the most egregious Uncle Tom ever put on film. Even Foxx—to my mind, one of the most unlikable actors currently working—manages, if not to quite curb his innate arrogance, then least to turn it to the service of his character.
That leaves only the ethical sticking-point, here: the imposition of late 20th-century liberal values upon an antebellum Southern setting. And how you feel about this depends, I suppose, on either your level of engagement with this specific issue, or your sense of responsibility generally.
For my taste, there’s something a little too easy about these films’ desire to draw comfort, years after the fact, from historical circumstances in which precious little of that quality can be found. But it is telling, I think, about where we’re at as a culture: exhausted, remorseful, in need of reassurance, however belated or incomplete. And it also says a lot about America’s profoundly uneasy relationship with its own history. (Committed anti-Nazi ideologues, already wise to the horrors of the Holocaust, the Basterds were anything but Lindbergh-style isolationists.)
Tarantino has often been accused of a juvenile sensibility—and this is more true here, I think, than in any other of his films, since it’s juvenile in the most literal sense: the way a kid has to win every game he plays, and will change the rules retrospectively to ensure he does. Hitler should have been killed, right? Well, now he is! Slavery was evil . . . and now it’s avenged! It’s fantasy as a panacea, movies made to rewrite—and thereby absolve—a real world that determinedly resists the niceties of editing, and which too often denies us the satisfaction of justice, much less a happy ending.