In “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx plays Django, a black slave purchased for about a hundred dollars and freed by a German dentist and bounty hunter named Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A straightforward treatment might have involved having the slave run away north. But the movie Quentin Tarantino has written and directed is corkscrewed, inside-out, upside-down, simultaneously clear-eyed and completely out of its mind.
Django is married. He and his wife (Kerry Washington) were savagely lacerated and separately sold. He’s not free until she is. So he works as the bounty hunter’s sidekick, with the bounty hunter agreeing to help him find the wife and rescue her from a Mississippi plantation.
Set in 1858, this isn’t a runaway narrative. It’s a run-toward narrative, rigged for shock. Each scene lays a stick of dynamite and lights a fuse that runs down and down and down until the whole thing blows up like the Fourth of July. I’ve never seen anything like this movie, not in one 165-minute sitting, not from a single director, not made with this much conscientious bravado and unrelenting tastelessness — this much exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.
Tarantino has never been more himself than he is here. The movie is absurdly violent. When a slave owner is shot up in the opening minutes, the blood doesn’t splatter. It splashes like a bowling ball that fell 50 feet into a full bathtub. The film’s assortment of snipings, bludgeonings, and massacres don’t stoop to Tarantino’s typical fatuousness. Almost every corpse wears a principled toe-tag of vengeance.
Tarantino has also never pushed himself, as he does here, to understand what it would mean to harness his cinematic promiscuity, to merge the properties of the spaghetti western, the blaxploitation movie, the Hollywood prestige picture, broad satire, and high romance into a movie whose resulting taxonomy is simply Tarantino.
The first half of the film is a kind of buddy-movie picaresque in which Django and Schultz traverse the country picking off wanted men and sharing the payday. A comic upside of Django’s freedom is going from rags to ruffles and electric blue knee pants and a matching cutaway jacket. He looks like something from the Andre 3000 Little Lord Fauntleroy collection. Schultz schools Django in the ways of the marksman, while Django grips his freedom tight. The astonished stares of other slaves and their white owners seem to embolden Django, say, to lash the white brothers who whipped him and his wife.
The sustained climax is set in and around the Mississippi plantation that ensnares Django’s wife, Broomhilda, a beauty who speaks fluent German. To gain entry, he and Schultz concoct a scheme in which they gain favor with the plantation owner, a flamboyant priss named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), by pretending to be a pair of slave traders shopping for brutes to win the bare-knuckle death matches plantation owners were known to stage for their private entertainment. The prospect of being a black “slaver,” as Django puts it, nauseates him. But by this point he’s so close to Broomhilda that he holds his breath and commits to the ruse.
Tarantino raises the stakes by naming the brawls Mandingo fights, a reference to a 37-year-old plantation-bound cult-movie provocation full of interracial lust, a boxing slave, and the salty ham of James Mason. Tarantino stages his own such fight in the parlor of Candie’s Cleopatra Club, and it’s the most brutal scene he’s ever devised, which, for him, is really saying something. The black people in the room can’t bring themselves to watch. But Candie becomes increasingly unhinged with exhilaration. DiCaprio has never been afraid to try anything. Still, this is the loosest and weirdest he’s allowed himself to be.
The movie’s a hard mix of meticulous cartoonishness and unexpected power. In order for it to work emotionally you have to believe in Django and Broomhilda beyond Foxx and Washington’s sexiness. You have to feel that they’re two halves of one heart. Tarantino shows them fleeing together in a flashback shot in greens and blues and over-saturated (the rest of the movie is scarlet and sunny; it’s warm). They’re holding hands running, pursued, across an open field. The image of Washington’s anguished face hovers onscreen, and if these are the images that haunt Django, they’re also images that haunt us. We want him to find her because it’s romantic but also because it’s just. That sequence is as close as Tarantino will ever come to oblique passion of Toni Morrison. Continued...