Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation spaghetti western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, provoked a lot of contradictory feelings in me, including some that don’t usually come in pairs: Hilarity and boredom. Aesthetic delight and physical nausea. Fist-pumping righteousness and vague moral unease.
Of course, provoking intense feelings is what Tarantino’s cinema is all about. The 49-year-old eternal wunderkind has always been a provocateur, a creator of over-the-top multi-genre spectaculars that are as cinematically sophisticated as they can be ideologically crude. But with his last two films—Inglourious Basterds, which rewrote the ending of World War II as an apocalyptic Jewish revenge fantasy, and Django Unchained, which performs an analogous sleight of hand on the institution of American slavery—Tarantino ups the ante. Now he’s drawing his inspiration not only from movie history—the mob dramas, martial-arts films, and grade-B exploitation flicks he’s always drawn on for his ingenious style pastiches—but from history itself.
That shift in source material seems, in itself, worthy of pausing to note. Does his choice to plumb the past for painful, ideologically loaded stories of racial and ethnic violence suggest that Tarantino is maturing as a filmmaker, opening out from the stylized self-referentiality of his early films onto a broader historical perspective? And if it doesn’t—if Tarantino really is just appropriating world-historical atrocities for no other reason than their power to make audiences sweat and squirm and root for the long-suffering good guys to finally for the love of God kick the bad guys’ Nazi/slave-trading asses—should that matter? Does Django Unchained need to have anything more on its mind than the unleashing of gleefully gory racial retribution?
A legend places the movie’s opening in Texas in 1858, two years before the beginning of the Civil War. A band of slaves shackled at the ankle makes its way through the night, driven by two white traders. Suddenly a curious sight comes into view: A horse-drawn-carriage topped by a bouncing wooden tooth and driven by a German émigré, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, jovially stealing every scene he’s in), who’s posing as an itinerant dentist. In fact, King is a bounty hunter on business for the U.S. government. He’s looking for a particular slave, Django (a steely Jamie Foxx), to help him identify his next targets, the notoriously pitiless slave overseers the Brittle brothers.
In no time, Schultz has bought Django his liberty, tossed the remaining slaves the key to their shackles, and made short work of the unlucky traders. With Django posing as his valet, Schultz locates the Brittles, who, it turns out, are the same heartless bastards who earlier separated Django from his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz strikes a deal with the wary Django: If he’s willing to ride north and bounty-hunt by Schultz’s side through the winter, in the spring they’ll head south together to find and rescue Broomhilda.
After an irresistibly loopy montage set to Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” in which the two bounty hunters ride through Marlboro-country backdrops felling wanted criminals and practicing target shooting on snowmen, we move to Mississippi, where they’ve tracked Broomhilda’s whereabouts to Candieland, a plantation belonging to the decadent, sadistic, and obscenely rich Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in an enjoyably florid, mustache-twirling performance). Candie’s hobby is “mandingo fighting,” the practice of siccing two unarmed black men on one another and forcing them to fight to the death. (There’s one long, horrifying scene in which we witness the sport in action; I can’t speak with authority as to how gory it got in the end, because I could only watch through a latticework of fingers.)
Django and Schultz pose as mandingo traders in order to infiltrate the plantation and help Broomhilda escape—but it’s not easy to get past Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candieland’s eagle-eyed “house nigger” (if that job description makes you uncomfortable, get used to it; in Django Unchained the n-word is ubiquitous in the mouths of both black and white actors). I wish the complex enmity between Django and Stephen—the fiercely self-reliant freed slave and the servile, self-loathing Uncle Tom—had been the dramatic focus of this middle section. Instead, the movie founders into theatricality with a way-too-long dinner sequence replete with death threats, double-crosses, and impromptu phrenology lectures.
The last hour and a half of Django Unchained sometimes seems like Tarantino’s extended experiment in blood-splatter painting. How would a burst of arterial blood look spraying across a horse’s flank? Over a field of unpicked cotton? Onto the white carnation in a dandy’s buttonhole? If you unproblematically loved Inglourious Basterds, with its multiple endings that nested one gory act of take-that-you-Nazis! retribution inside another, you will probably dig the final stretch of Django Unchained. I won’t spoil who does what to whom, save to say that lots of bad fates are visited upon lots of bodies (some of which get torn apart alive by dogs or continue to be shot at close range many, many times after they’re dead). The rhythm begins to stagger as Tarantino can’t resist topping his first bloodbath shootout with a second, more comic, more virtuosic bloodbath shootout, or flashing back to that earlier dog-mauling scene just in case we’d forgotten.
Tarantino’s intent may have been to showcase the horrors of slavery, but there’s something about his directorial delectation in all these acts of racial violence that left me not just physically but morally queasy. His fascination with repeated acts of graphic retribution puts the viewer in the position of Calvin J. Candie, watching with a cigarette holder and a coconut drink in hand as the mandingoes fight it out.