Quentin Tarantino has once again crafted a revenge story with enough redeeming qualities to forgive his penchant for gratuitous violence. Though perhaps not Tarantino’s best film, “Django Unchained,” released Dec. 25, is a welcome addition to the writer-director’s oeuvre.
Set in the South in 1858, the film follows Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is bought by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz promises Django his freedom and a cut of the reward if he can help identify three wanted men—the Brittle brothers—on a nearby plantation. Despite the success of their bounty mission, plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) arranges a lynch mob, which results only in the mob’s embarrassment and death after one of the funnier sequences in the film—a back and forth about the merits of wearing hoods when riding horses in a lynch mob.
In exchange for the success of their initial endeavor, Schultz feels obligated to help the newly freed Django find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). After Schultz spends the winter training Django in the mountains, the two men travel to a plantation called Candie Land, whose owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), had purchased Broomhilda at a slave auction. In order to convince Candie to part with Broomhilda, the pair pretends to be interested in purchasing a Mandingo wrestler—a purchase that they hope will result in Broomhilda’s freedom.
When things go sour (as things are wont to do in the Tarantino-verse), the two are forced to escape Candie Land under hostile fire, endangering Django’s life and the likelihood of escaping with his wife.
As with other Tarantino films, the cast of “Django” is its greatest strength. Foxx is particularly strong as the titular freedman-turned-bounty-hunter. But just as Waltz was unmatched by his costars in “Inglourious Basterds,” he is similarly on top of his game here in his second Tarantino film, in which he plays a character with persuasive powers similar to his smooth talking, dangerous SS colonel in “Basterds.”
DiCaprio does a fine job as Candie, though he lays his faux-Southern accent on a bit thick, and Samuel L. Jackson has great chemistry with DiCaprio as Candie’s house slave, Stephen—the only person on the plantation who knows what’s going on.
Unlike his other films, which are are filled with obscure allusions and layered meaning, Tarantino is rather overt in explaining the subtext of “Django.” Schultz tells Django the German folktale of Broomhilda, a woman who is imprisoned on a rock by her father until the hero, Siegfried, slays a dragon and walks through hellfire to rescue her. This sequence too obviously presented the film as a loose retelling of the folktale, with Django as an analog of Siegfried.
Despite some of its overstatement, the film is an admirable alternate-history spaghetti western. While the question of why Tarantino would do essentially the same thing he did with “Inglourious Basterds” (except with slavery) may arise, it is superseded by the question of why three separate plots are crammed into a single movie, albeit a movie of almost three hours.
Though some have expressed uneasiness with the way the film handles slavery—Spike Lee called the film “disrespectful,” according to Rolling Stone—Tarantino doesn’t avoid the graphic brutality of slavery, and the film does more to indict slavery than anything else.
Despite its flaws, “Django Unchained” is a good film infused with enough of Tarantino’s style to make it a rewarding, though bloody, three hours.