Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but “Django Unchained” makes for one heck of a good time in the interim. The first scene is arresting in its ambition: on a cold and foggy night, a line of slaves in chains is dragged ploddingly across a wooded path when a carriage from the opposing direction wanders into view. Aboard the driver’s seat is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an enigmatic sort who speaks with dignified purpose in the face of his skeptic passers-by. He is looking in particular for a slave who can identify the faces the infamous Brittle brothers, whom he happens to be on the hunt for. A slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) speaks up as if the names hit a nerve, and Schultz offers to buy him from those transporting his group of imprisoned plantation workers to Texas. A series of heated dialogue exchanges and threats ends in the first of several big shootouts, and with Django’s hands in the possession of the well-mannered but determined stranger.
In truth, he is a bounty hunter (and noted slave sympathizer) whose intentions are clear from the get-go: the people on his long list of perpetrators are dangerous sorts in trouble for varying reasons, and their punishment must come in the form of simple but conclusive justice. The concept propels Django initially based on Schultz’s possession of contracts on the Brittle boys – who he has personally had past dealings with – but once the day comes when their justice is served, his desire to extend a newfound career in hunting down arrogant white men and slave owners is simply too good an idea to resist. And much like the Jewish cinema owner in “Inglorious Basterds” who decides she will blow up her movie theater at a screening for a Nazi propaganda film, no one in this film’s audience would stand in a position of protest at the idea anyway.
If I am describing the plot if extremely broad strokes, it’s because Tarantino’s films are dependent on nuance and a certain tone that make basic plot descriptions virtually banal in comparison to viewing them. His style, furthermore, is exaggerated beyond the spectrum that most serious film directors would contemplate, and to discuss them in any capacity removes a crucial context. But it is a framework, nonetheless, that allows his endeavors to rise above the notion of being amateur jobs disguised as quirky homages, and the movies themselves are immensely engaging on a visceral level. “Django Unchained” is of no exception to that quality: it is brazen, audacious, thrilling and skillful with every concept it dabbles in, and its actors seem to wander through the director’s spaces as if consumed by the joyous implications of his overstated enthusiasm for the material.
That he also manages to pull performances of great depth consistently from actors otherwise lacking in perception for an artistic resonance is a skill we are reminded of abundantly here. For “Pulp Fiction,” Bruce Willis, who was otherwise a routine action film hero at the time, was mesmerizing as a boxer who flips the script on a ring of gambling hit men; in “Kill Bill,” Daryl Hannah surpassed all preconceptions of her viewers with a delightfully shrewd portrayal of a woman obsessed with suffering. Jamie Foxx, who has been relatively checkered in his ability to convince others of his desire to create meaningful portrayals*, is relentlessly convincing here as a man whose freedom becomes a fire that he will gleefully allow to sweep over all the corrupt souls of a racist populace. The meatiest dialogue exchanges occur with certain confidence that creates a suggestion in his observers of a misplaced arrogance laced with looming menace. This becomes crucial to the plot in the last act of the movie, when both he and Schultz decide to pursue a lead in locating Django’s lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and discover she has been sold to a notorious slave trader in Mississippi named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The dislodged social structure of Candie’s plantation create blurred lines of loyalty that contradict the keystones of the era, and because Django must slither his way through the situation without benefit of knowing who to trust in a game where he and Schultz hope to acquire Broomhilda through sheer manipulation of a situation, it creates a tense dance between leads that keeps us in a state of perpetual anxiety.
Other actors have just as much fun with what Tarantino supplies them. Don Johnson, who makes a brief appearance as a plantation owner housing the Brittle brothers, is colorful with euphemisms and grins with glee under an absurd handlebar mustache. Samuel L. Jackson creates a difficult character whose senility is emphasized by an indulgence in shouting the same racial slurs as his white owners. And Waltz, so paralyzing in “Inglorious Basterds” as a Nazi hunter who kills others with charm before bullets, is the most likable bounty hunter we may ever see in a movie, and plays the material so straight that it generates a certain respect in the audience, especially in the way he engages with his new partner and effortlessly one-ups those that believe they have the upper hand in sabotaging his drive.
Much like its predecessor, “Django Unchained” wraps the premise of revenge in a cloak of prominent historical injustice, which gives Tarantino a certain boundless freedom in adding weight to the payoff of vengeance being served in a manner that is fitting for the antagonists. But the scenario in which he plays this time is a precarious one, even for a man who so ambitiously sneers at political correctness and sensitivity. What the nerve indicates primarily, I suppose, is that simple stories about victims who will break from their constraints and bring their predators to justice are now a thing of the past, and his future requires him to take greater risks to keep up with the desensitized nature of our violent culture.
Lesser directors would cross those lines without recognizing them, and indeed, many have already done so. But Tarantino is too smart, and experienced, to sabotage everything for the chance to tango with the shadow of discomfort – he recognizes that even here. The “Kill Bill” films are still surely his masterpieces, and “Inglorious Basters” is an even greater and more consistent film than what he gives us this time around. But the triumph in “Django Unchained” is that the movie realizes this challenge and meets it head-on with a high pitch of gusto. It is plainly a nonstop riot of humor and excitement, and one that matches its delicate nature with an equally calculated sense of importance in leading us to the most satisfying climax possible. In the final moments of the film, Django is standing with his rescued wife at the edge of a blaze that will destroy the remnants of his sworn enemies, and he shoots back a glare of satisfaction spiked with certain confidence. Had the camera been turned on the director in this moment of importance, one would not doubt the look on his own face being any less elated.
* Foxx’s portrayal in “Ray,” which one him an Academy Award, is not considered in this statement, despite my reservations with its calculated quality which seems less like full-fledged embodiment and more like skillful impersonation. But it was passable, and up to this point had been a highlight in a career that gave him few opportunities to stretch beyond innocuous dialogue exchanges.
Action (US); 2012; Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity; Running Time: 165 Minutes
Jamie Foxx: Django
Christoph Waltz: Dr. King Schultz
Leonardo DiCaprio: Calvin Candie
Kerry Washington: Broomhilda von Shaft
Samuel L. Jackson: Stephen
Produced by William Paul Clark, Reginald Hudlin, Shannon McIntosh, Pilar Savone, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, James W. Skotchdopole, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein; Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino