“The ‘D’ is silent, hillbilly!”
If anyone would take a stab at something that sounds as ridiculous and cringeworthy as tackling American slavery in a spaghetti Western, it’s Quentin Tarantino. “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies,” he said, clearly referring to Django Unchained in a 2007 interview—five years before it came out. “I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/3664742/Quentin-Tarantino-Im-proud-of-my-flop.html).
The title here references Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django, an actual spaghetti Western in which the titular hero, a cowboy, is thrust into a row between Southern Klansmen and Mexican revolutionaries. In Django Unchained, the story starts in 1858—just a few years before the American Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave separated from his wife, the curiously named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), after they were caught trying to escape a plantation. He’s shackled to a group of slaves that the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo) are driving on foot to be sold.
Enter traveling dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a genteel German driving a wagon with a big wooden tooth on top of it. Schultz is actually a bounty hunter looking for the Brittle brothers—Big John (M.C. Gainey), Lil Raj (Cooper Huckabee), and Ellis (Doc Duhame)—who happen to be Django and Broomhilda’s former masters. He makes Django an offer he can’t refuse: help him find and kill the brothers, and Schultz will pay him, set him free, and help him find Broomhilda.
Django Unchained is structured in essentially three “episodes.” The first takes place in a one-horse town near El Paso, where Schultz provokes the ire of the townfolk, the sheriff (Don Stroud), and a U.S. Marshall (Tom Wopat). The second takes place on a plantation owned and operated by Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson—um, wow!). The last, longest, and most twisted takes place on another plantation in Mississippi, the bountiful Candie-Land, owned by charming but sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and operated by his shifty Uncle Tom house-slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Tarantino actually pulls off what he said he wanted to, and he does it quite well. Django Unchained could have been a really dark film like its immediate successor, The Hateful Eight. The two films have a lot in common. The tension—and there’s lots of it—built into the story is deliberately and profoundly slow in reaching a boil. Django Unchained certainly has Tarantino’s trademark violence, revenge theme, and liberal use of the ‘n’ word—116 times, a record for a film according to IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv). A few scenes are difficult to watch, the “Mandingo fight scene” being the worst for me. Unlike The Hateful Eight, though, the violence here is Tarantino’s typical flagrantly graphic cartoonish gore. He also shows a more conspicuous sense of humor—for example, Django and Broomhilda are ancestors of John Shaft of the Shaft franchise (https://www.google.com/amp/deadline.com/2012/07/django-unchained-a-shaft-prequel-so-says-quentin-tarantino-comic-con-301010/amp/).
Django Unchained is an unlikely and uncomfortable pairing of an ugly part of our collective past with absurdity, but it’s entertaining while still getting its point across: we’re still living with the aftermath. It’s the kind of film you mull over for a long time after you see it.
With Laura Cayouette, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Quentin Tarantino, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Misty Upham, Danièle Watts, Robert Carradine
Produced by The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures
Distributed by The Weinstein Company (North America), Sony Pictures Releasing (International)
(iTunes rental) A-