It’s hard to call Django Unchained a return to form for Quentin Tarantino, considering a sense of form is the one thing he’s always had. But in the way this movie uses genre style to make us wrestle with the allure of righteous revenge, Django is a fresh firecracker and a huge relief after the mess that was Inglourious Basterds. In short, Tarantino hasn’t been this vital since Jackie Brown.
Basterds standout Christoph Waltz returns to Tarantino territory as Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter in 1800s America who expends far more words than bullets (though each of those bullets count). Schultz teams up with a former slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), because Django can help him identify his next targets. That assignment goes so well that Schultz invites Django to become a partner and even agrees to help him rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from a notorious plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Despite the way it functions as flashy entertainment, the weight of slavery can still be felt in Django Unchained.
This is combustible stuff, but one of the exhilarating things about Tarantino is the way he juggles volatile elements with such style and comic dexterity. Finally able to purchase his own clothes, Django chooses a dandyish, royal-blue getup (there are even blue bows on the shoes). He looks like a colonial-era clown, yet in one of the many scenes of bloody comeuppance – in which Django comes between an overseer and the slave he’s about to whip – Foxx and Tarantino give Django the air of a dignified superhero (you know, like Shaft). In complete control, with that royal blue taking on a Superman hue, Django asks the astonished slaves in attendance, “You want to see something?” before shooting the overseer in the face.
This is, as I’ve noted, a moment built upon other movies and pop-cultural references, yet there are other parts of Django Unchained in which the historical reality of slavery gets its due. Few movies have forced us to pay such attention to the cruel tools of that horrific trade: the spiked collars, the merciless dogs, the “hot box” that Washington’s Broomhilda is forced into after she tries to run away. Despite the way it functions as flashy “entertainment,” the weight of slavery can still be felt in Django Unchained.
The weight of the Holocaust wasn’t felt this way in Basterds, which is just one reason it’s a far lesser film. Tarantino’s at his best – and he is in Django – when indulging in his instinctual delight over genre violence, throwing it up on the screen in all its tantalizing glory and letting us figure out what to do with it. When his movies try to figure it out themselves – when they try to intellectualize the moral messiness, as Inglourious Basterds does – they find themselves in deep water, with little sense as to how to swim.
And so Django Unchained keeps things relatively simple: its hero deserves retribution, and we’re going to watch him get it. The villains, then, are really victims-in-waiting. Foremost among these is DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a surprisingly nuanced creation. He gets to shout – this is, after all, the showman part – but DiCaprio also takes moments, especially during a tense after-dinner speech that touches on Candie’s family history, to place him within a genealogy of industrialized inhumanity that even he doesn’t fully understand. Even more frightening is Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, an aged house slave who’s studied closely at the feet of his brutish masters. Glowering and simpering at the same time, Stephen is a personification of the way evil can corrupt so wholly that it turn its victims into perpetrators.
As for Foxx, he underplays his way into the best performance in the film. True, he puffs out his chest in Django’s moments of furious comeuppance, but he mostly seems interested in sketching out the quiet exhaustion and romantic longing of the character. By not putting Django’s rage in the forefront, Foxx makes him more human. If there’s a saving grace to Django Unchained, something more than the catharsis of vengeful violence, it’s in the way that Django and Broomhilda’s love – realized in fantasy sequences that reveal a new eye for natural beauty in Tarantino – counters the vindictive bloodshed. Together, this couple offers a way out of hatefulness, and a way forward. Perhaps even a way forward for Tarantino.