Quentin Tarantino has devoted the last decade to meticulously crafting enormously satisfying B-movie revenge fantasies for sexy women (Kill Bill, Death Proof), Jews (Inglourious Basterds) and now, with his explosive slavery-themed Western Django Unchained, African-Americans. In the films of Tarantino’s revenge collection, a noble desire to cinematically right (or re-write) historical wrongs mingles with and mutates more problematic impulses toward exhibitionism, sensationalism, voyeurism, fetishism, and exploitation. In film after film, Tarantino combines aggressively combustible elements—racism, sexism, profanity, hard drugs, violence against women, rape, Nazi brutality, slavery—with the deranged delight of a mad scientist, then cackles with glee as he lights a flame and watches the magnificent destruction that ensues. Tarantino remains an entertainer above all else, so his lurid provocations are generally in service of the intense emotions he forcefully, confidently orchestrates. Part of his genius in manipulating audiences lies in creating immersive cinematic experiences so overpowering that they distract from the thorny questions about race, sex, violence, and representation his films pose without answering. For better or worse, Tarantino aspires to an experience more emotional than intellectual, more in line with the giddy, transgressive thrill he experienced devouring B-movies as a young cinephile than the more cerebral, less immediate charms of the arthouse. He straddles the line separating art and trash, but his allegiance clearly lies with trash.
In a stoic, internal performance that favorably recalls Clint Eastwood’s early collaborations with Sergio Leone, Jamie Foxx stars as a vengeance-minded slave freed by German bounty hunter Christoph Waltz. The kind-hearted Waltz (it’s one of the film’s many inspired sick jokes that a German killer is easily the movie’s most racially sensitive man) takes the eager Foxx under his wing as a protégé, and together, they travel the South, killing bad men and enriching themselves. Then they turn their attention toward freeing Foxx’s beloved wife (Kerry Washington, in a performance no less compelling for being extremely short on dialogue) from a plantation owned by sadistic Francophile dandy Leonardo DiCaprio.
Django Unchained feels throughout like a Southern-fried American companion piece to Inglorious Basterds. Once again, Tarantino finds protagonists venturing far beyond enemy lines, under false pretenses, on a heroic mission, using a combination of guile, strategy, fearlessness, and brute force. In this case, Waltz and Foxx gain entry to DiCaprio and the corrupt world he lords over by pretending Waltz is a wealthy foreign businessman and Foxx a slaver and consultant, helping Waltz evaluate and purchase one of the slaves DiCaprio has trained to fight each other to the death. The smartly cast Foxx and Waltz give antithetical but complementary performances. As in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz plays a man who delights in the possibilities and pleasures endemic to the English language; he’s a sure shot with a gun, but he’s even more deadly with words. Where Waltz is gregarious, theatrical, and external, Foxx favors a minimalist approach befitting a character who cannot reveal his true identity or purpose, for fear of blowing his cover and dooming his mission.
Django Unchained wouldn’t be as problematic or powerful without the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as DiCaprio’s most loyal and twisted slave, a canny pragmatist who has so thoroughly internalized his culture’s racism and brutality that he seems intent on out-hating even the most vicious slave-driver. Reduced to a broad outline, Jackson’s character hews uncomfortably close to regressive racial caricatures of the past, but Jackson and Tarantino imbue the character with depth, smarts, and cultural specificity; he’s a fully developed human being with his own self-loathing version of a moral code, and he’s anything but a broad stereotype.
Tarantino’s sure-footed, gorgeously shot, darkly funny Western starts strong and gains in momentum until a breathtaking climax that represents the apogee of his adventures in culture-mashing: a shoot-out that combines iconic moments from Scarface and The Wild Bunch with a fire-breathing 2Pac rap song that’s perfect in spite of, or perhaps because of, the anachronism. Tarantino comes out with guns blazing on Django Unchained, a brawling, two-fisted epic equally enamored of blood and words, so it’s fitting that two of its most adrenaline-pumping moments are set to the defiant gangsta rap of Ross and Tupac Shakur, who’s posthumously paired with James Brown. Their union works spectacularly well in the moment, while also cementing the film’s roots in the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s.
Tarantino’s smudgy, excitable fingerprints are all over every frame of Django Unchained, but ironically, he breaks the film’s hypnotic spell by making an ill-advised return to acting in a supporting role that further burdens him with a difficult accent. Tarantino should feel flattered and a little insulted that with Django Unchained, he created such a rich, vivid, convincing world that even a few minutes of chatter by an actor as clumsy as himself is enough to take audiences entirely out of the movie. Tarantino simply isn’t a good enough performer for his presence to be anything but a distraction in a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser this consistently great.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Django Unchained’s Spoiler Space.