Generously aping original Django filmmaker Sergio Corbucci right from the outset, Quentin Tarantino expropriates the opening of the Italian Spaghetti Westerner’s most iconic production to set the stage for a brazen, bold, and brilliantly violent look at slavery, race relations, and cold blooded revenge where reparations should have come due in his exemplary spin off/knock-off/homage Django Unchained. It’s an intriguing, if admittedly lower stakes, narrative unlike anything the director has attempted before, and while the results might not have the game changing punch of Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds, the movie feels stronger without grander overtures beyond the obvious.
Taking the iconic lovelorn theme song from Corbucci’s film (as well as the opening title font and the director’s love of fast moving, zooming shots that seem out of place anywhere else), Tarantino applies the lyrics to tell the story of a black slave in the antebellum Southern US two years before the start of the Civil War shackled in leg irons trekking across barren and sometimes bloody wasteland. Our hero and new Django, played by Jamie Foxx, doesn’t need a coffin to drag around. He’s already dead inside, anyway.
Django gets rescued from his indentured servitude by Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned ruthless bounty hunter who needs his help in identifying a trio of bandits that used to be his owners. A hater of slavery himself, Shultz takes Django under his wing as a free man and bounty hunter in training for the winter. In exchange for helping him make a ton of money, Shultz agrees to help the married Django make his way back to the wife (Kerry Washington) that he was forced to abandon and the two create a con to buy her back from her current master: a boy prince of the old money south named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who cares more about status, refinery, and Mandingo fighting than he does about actually operating his palatial plantation.
It’s very easy to be critical of any film talking about slavery told from a white perspective, especially when the director in question has been accused of being a bit too lax with his own racial sensitivities at times. But the satire here that undercuts the incredibly gruesome geysers of blood that erupt throughout the film from various gunshots, whippings, and other bits of extreme nastiness, comes straight from the heart of someone openly pissed off at what happened. There’s no guile or white guilt gloss. It’s gritty, grimy, bleak, and yet still only steps away from what Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles minus any sort of apologetic tone. It’s mournful and brimming with gallows humour and straight up parody of former American idiocy and reprehensibility. Best of all (or perhaps worst for those with weaker constitutions) is that it isn’t shy about it.
Foxx doesn’t really even enter into his own film very much until the duo actually reaches Candie’s plantation an hour into the nearly three hour film. The opening hour involves Waltz’s savvy German foreigner showing his charge the ropes and how to manipulate the system. In this opening hour, Waltz establishes himself as the best actor to ever read Tarantino’s particular brand of rambling and off colour dialogue. As much as anyone else can laud the performances of DiCaprio or Samuel L. Jackson (both of whom we’ll get to in a second), Waltz runs off with the film in much the same way he did when he won the Academy Award for Basterds. Only here instead of playing a violent man doing heinous things for love of country, he’s playing a supposedly noble man committing violent acts for money by delivering the corpses of the wicked. He’s just as loquacious and thoughtful as his sneering iconic villain, but Shultz acts as the exact mirror opposite of his previous fascist character, making for an interesting bridge between Tarantino’s two most recent projects. He can also dress people down with logic like it’s nobody’s business.
When it comes time for Foxx to take centre stage, he doesn’t go for a flashy action movie portrait of the character. He’s taking a fair dose of Franco Nero’s take on the lone gunslinger with a lost love crossed with a 70s blaxploitation anti-hero. Django does his dirt out in the open in service of his lady love, and he gets the lion’s share of dramatic heavy lifting here especially when he’s placed in opposition to DiCaprio’s character.
Django’s German named wife Broomhilda has been suffering at the idyllic and cheekily named Candyland plantation as a “comfort girl” thanks to her whip mark scored back and “R” that was burned into her face for trying to run off to freedom with her husband. Shultz’s grand plan to get her back involves the two of them working their way into Calvin’s world and posing as a pair of Mandingo fighting enthusiasts looking to purchase one of the young man’s brawlers, seeking to offer an outrageous sum of money to take one of them with him and make a smaller offer for Django’s wife on the side. Shultz will play the novice with the money, and Foxx, a “one eyed Charlie.” Asked to play a black slaver, and play him lower than dirt, Foxx excels at showing forced menace and very subtly how that same act can cause his rage to build before making his way to the ultimate final payback. Foxx openly berates the slaves on Calvin’s plantation to raise his interest in making a sale, but he never convinces hired hand Billy Crash (Walt Scoggins) who always looks for an excuse to bring harm to Django at the first sign of the act slipping.
The false Francophile and budding phrenologist Calvin as played by DiCaprio solidifies the second half shift from one type of Italian film to another. The southern dandy rules the roost with blood and fear, but he never gives a damn about using the land. In fact, in a novel twist, none of the film that takes place on a plantation ever once sees the slaves really working, and only getting punished for insolence or forced into degrading/dangerous acts. In Tarantino’s worldview these slaves aren’t even a means to an end, and simply property that people like Candie and Don Johnson’s all too briefly used comedic aside Big Daddy use to make their already vast expanses of land seem all the more bigger. They rule over their own miniature countries like the American Roman Empire with all the imagery to match from Tarantino’s end.
Calvin does a great job of talking and posturing, but he wouldn’t be much of anything without his head slave Stephen, played by a fright wig wearing, never blinking, and even darker skinned Jackson in another true live wire of a performance. It’s a daring role that equates his own Uncle Tom leanings as a black man playing literally in blackface, and it’s far more menacing any threats DiCaprio can come up with. Alternately the biggest source of problems for Django and Broomhilda and the parrot on Calvin’s shoulder, Jackson plays Stephen as a shuck and jive politician who will do a theatrical styled dance in front of a crowd, but he intimidates and becomes fearsome anytime he confronts someone one on one.
Tarantino still shows off his love for films with dozens of asides that never seem to go anywhere in the sake of adding some of his own personality into the movie, and these asides are typically strong even if the film doesn’t need to be three hours in length and it feels like pieces have oddly gone missing. His dialogue is there, but at times it’s more sprawling than it needs to be. A sequence involving Johnson organizing a raid early on in the film turns into exactly the kind of Mel Brooks comedy act that Tarantino should be avoiding no matter how funny it ultimately is and despite the participation of Jonah Hill as a fellow confused klansman.
Visually, Tarantino aims straight for Corbucci’s territory with muddy Earth and dust cropping up in the most pristinely kept places. He’s also still using his soundtracks like a DJ trying to start a party, which acts well here since this isn’t Tarantino at his most “on point” but at his most playful. A particular montage involving Shultz training Django set to the strains of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” adds the biggest bit of pop iconography and turns the duo into a more proactive version of Butch and Sundance.
What makes the film interesting and ultimately the most rewarding is the structure, which Tarantino hasn’t over thought into making it into something more than it is. This is a straightforward film that follows a single timeline and sticks to it rigidly. It’s not a time shifting narrative told out of order or from multiple different perspectives at the same time. This is Django and Shultz’s journey; nothing more and nothing less. The very looseness and Tarantino’s desire to make an epic oater elevates the material into feeling like something special rather than replicating the formula he’s made most of his career on. The story isn’t dumbed down, and if anything it’s even more potentially incendiary and open for discussion than anything he’s attempted, but the fact that he’s worked himself into a structure where that argument could even be had by a majority of the people who view the film, makes it a special case in the filmmaker’s 20 year career.
It’s far from Tarantino’s best film, it’s assuredly too long, and the finale drags longer than it should despite giving viewers the visceral gore and vengeance they desire from Django’s catharsis, but it’s definitely big budget filmmaking done very well and by someone who wants to take his genre trappings to talk about something that’s been bothering him. What he’s trying to say about modern society, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess.