Fist-pumpingly exciting and blood-boilingly provocative, Django Unchained is very much a spiritual sequel to Inglorious Basterds. But instead of playing fast and loose with history, Quentin Tarantino comes at it head-first. Imagine if Basterds had a scene at a concentration camp and you begin to understand the tonal tightrope Tarantino is walking here, balancing the cartoonish and the pulp with the horrible and stomach-turning. Set before the Civil War, Django Unchained is almost a rebuke of the Reconstruction, a response to Lincoln’s measured approach. I will not shake your hand, you ofay motherfucker.
If there’s a single complaint to lodge against the film it’s that at nearly three hours Django Unchained is too short; there is a longer cut out there, and Tarantino struggled with the edit right up to release. This is his first post-Sally Menke film, and it’s hard to say if some of the less elegant editing is a result of her absence or the need to meet a very hard end of the year deadline. Either way, while the editing can be off at times, it never truly undermines the film.
Jaime Foxx is iconic as Django, a freed slave who takes on the job of bounty hunter in order to rescue his wife, Broomhilda, from the clutches of the wicked plantation owner Calvin Candie. His companion is Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter given to Tarantino-esque verbal flights, who finds the savagery of the American South a bit hard to stomach.
The big debate coming out of the film will be who shines the brightest: Christoph Waltz’s Schultz is the kind of character people will love, while Foxx plays Django with an incredible restraint for much of the running time, only occasionally showboating. Schultz is one of those Tarantino characters who isn’t just smarter than everybody else, he’s a badder ass than everybody else. He’s elegant and yet remorselessly brutal... and yet incredibly sentimental and given to true sensitivity. Waltz is incredible, carefully straddling the line between mythic and human. It’s no surprise that he would be the flashiest character on screen, even though this time he’s much more subdued than in Basterds.
But for me it’s all about Foxx. He brings Django from a broken slave to a righteous servant of vengeance to a man motivated fully, completely by love. Along the way he plays Django playing roles; to infiltrate Candie’s plantation Schultz and Django must pose as slavers, and Foxx is perfect. Django must be cruel and heartless to slaves to maintain the illusion, and it would have been easy for Foxx to play the inner turmoil on his face, broadly, to make it available to the audience. But he doesn’t, never allowing Django to break character, instead playing it all in the eyes. To me it’s a magnificent performance, and the fact that Django Unchained can contain this performance and an over-the-top one like Leonardo DiCaprio’s is astonishing.
The truth is that the two actors are best when they’re together. The chemistry between them is sizzling, and I could have easily watched another hour of Schultz and Django riding the west, collecting bounties. There’s not enough of this fun Western gunplay - or rather there is, as the characters and their abilities are properly established, but I wanted so much more.
Samuel L. Jackson delivers the other powerhouse performance as Stephen, the insidious house nigger who shuffles in public but in private pulls the strings at Candyland, a hellish plantation where madingo slaves fight to the death. Stephen’s character is fascinating, layered and repulsive - possibly among the best Tarantino villains. Jackson, who has spent so many years just showing up and being Sam L, actually acts in the role and it reminds you why he’s great. The character is also the one who offers the most fascinating avenues for analysis; the film posits him as the ultimate villain, due to his collaboration with his slave master. Calvin Candie is a joke - a vicious, subhuman joke, but a joke nonetheless - while Stephen is the true sinister heart of darkness in Candyland. In a movie where the white hero is named Dr. King, this feels incredibly provocative, but in a smart, thoughtful way.
DiCaprio goes all the way as Candie, throwing himself into the cartoony role with abandon. In one intense scene - a scene played with the same level of unbearable tension that Tarantino brought to the Fassbender-in-the-bar scene in Basterds - DiCaprio actually sliced his hand open in a take and kept going, ranting and raving. That’s the take in the movie. There’s no humanity in Candie, just an ugly, incestuous, petty evil that indicts all of the South. This, Tarantino says, is the Southern Gentleman. This is the myth of the genteel plantation life. This is the cancer that had to be rooted out... if it ever was.
This is a very male movie; Kerry Washington is Broomhilda, but she’s mostly terrorized or freaked out or sidelined. She’s presented more as an ideal, a representation of a love worth fighting for. A love worth facing a dragon and walking through hellfire, just as mythical Siegfried did.
And that’s the key to the film: Django Unchained isn’t a revenge picture. It has vengeance in it, but Django’s mission is simply to rescue his wife. He will do it without bloodshed if he can, but he isn’t afraid to shoot every fucking white man in his path either. And when he shoots them they die in volcanic eruptions of blood squibs; in one climactic gun battle, Tarantino actually uses cannon explosions and impacts as the sound effects over the bullet hits. This is a movie where bullets hit like meteors, sending oceans of bright red blood splattering over everything in sight. Tarantino isn’t just sticking it to the racists, he’s sticking it to CGI blood.
There are tricky tonal shifts, but Tarantino is one of the best filmmakers we’ve ever had, and they’re nothing to him. He vaults from comedy to brutal horror in an instant, never losing the audience. He doesn’t shy away from the truly inhuman treatment of slaves, but he also doesn’t rub our noses in it. It’s the mark of a master that he does it so well.
I want to see the longer cut of Django Unchained. I want to get back into this world of flawed heroes with the noblest of quests, evil villains who get what they deserve, and a bounty hunting team that is the coolest duo since Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. How many three hour long movies feel like not enough? Only the very best ones.