In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino takes history, and Hollywood, to task
Watching Django Unchained, it's easy to imagine that Quentin Tarantino had such a blast making his last picture, the ebullient Holocaust fantasia Inglourious Basterds, that he decided to take his whole blood-spattered historical tent show on the road, this time putting down stakes in antebellum Dixieland. Although not technically a Basterds prequel, Django stems from a similar impulse — to reframe and rewrite American history in boldly absurd strokes and, by doing so, to make us confront the distortions and omissions of so much "fact-based" cinema. Only in Basterds, Tarantino was engaged with an exhaustive canon of World War II movies, from Casablanca to Schindler's List, while the subject of Django Unchained — slavery in the American South — is one that has been conspicuously absent in Hollywood films in the century since D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
So the boisterous, outlandish, fiercely intelligent Django Unchained is at once an act of provocation and reparation — not just for slavery, but for Hollywood's decades of saintly Negroes and sass-talking sidekicks.
First seen in chains after being sold at auction, the captured runaway slave Django (Jamie Foxx) finds an unlikely savior in the form of one Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A German-American dentist turned bounty hunter, Schultz needs Django's help in identifying three wanted men formerly employed by Django's former owner. The time is 1858, three years before the Civil War, and the abolitionist-minded Schultz promises freedom to Django — and a share of the bounty — in exchange for his aid. When an actor becomes as closely associated with a character as Waltz did with his polyglot Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds, it can be a risk for that actor and director to re-team so soon. But Waltz quickly allays any such fears, embodying the role with such exuberant, theatrical flair — amused by the sound of his own voice, smoothing his mustache with a fastidious flick of his fingers — that you can't imagine any other actor doing it.
There's joy in Foxx's playing, too, and in his chemistry with Waltz, as he sheds the scarred skin of Django the slave to take on a series of new, more empowering alter egos. This being a Tarantino film, the theme of dramatic illusion is central. Schultz and Django don't merely set out on a mission, they first "get into character" — Schultz as a slave trader and Django as his faithful valet — and choose their costumes. Foxx riding to a Tennessee plantation in full Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia ranks among Tarantino's strongest visual gags. Then, just as Inglourious Basterds found time to discuss Karl May and his Winnetou novels and the history of German filmmaking under the Nazis, Django Unchained pauses for Wagner, as Django reveals that he has a wife named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) in need of rescue and the good German in turn relates the story of Der Ring des Nibelungen. So it's on to Valhalla — or as it's called here, Candyland — a sprawling Mississippi plantation named for its owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
An armchair phrenologist in a foppish burgundy suit and cigarette holder, his nervous eyes darting incestuously at his widowed sister, Candie is the least premeditated DiCaprio has ever seemed in a movie. But the true revelation of Candyland is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a 76-year-old house slave who has spent his life serving multiple generations of the Candie clan and who has become institutionalized by time, his co-dependent relationship with his master, and the small margin of power he wields with perverted pleasure over the other slaves. Brilliantly acted by Jackson, Tarantino's longtime muse, this alternately deplorable and pitiable character is in some way the true villain of the piece.
In his past two movies, Tarantino has ascended to a new level of filmmaking craftsmanship and narrative sophistication. And yet, probably because he came of age in a video store and has never quite lost the autodidact's air of bullish authority, some high-minded critics and cultural arbiters can't bring themselves to take him seriously as an intellectual. But like all of the best pop art, Tarantino's film is both seriously entertaining and seriously thoughtful, rattling the cage of race in America on screen and off.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.