Silver Screen: Django Unchained ****1/2
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest, is an ahistorical historical revenge epic. Perhaps a more sympathetic phrase would be pop-historical, although that sounds like it's been translated into Orwellian Newspeak. Suffice it to say, Tarantino's sense of literal historical accuracy is double-plus ungood, and in his world the greatest thoughtcrime is a failure to acknowledge the existence of various obscure exploitation films. Those who forget their film history are doomed not to be able to repeat it onscreen. But oh what a glorious mashup it is.
Set two years before the start of the Civil War, Django Unchained tells the story of an unlikely partnership between Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a jaunty German bounty hunter plying his trade in the American South. When first they meet, Schultz is hunting the murderous Bittle Brothers and needs Django to help identify the three men. Despite the European's distaste for the slave trade, he purchases Django, but offers him slightly more equal terms: If Django will help him earn the bounty, he'll help Django track down his missing wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to another plantation.
Thus the two men begin carving a bloody swath through what will soon be the Confederate states, dispensing justice and plenty of bullets as they take on a scheming plantation owner, a racist sheriff, and even the Ku Klux Klan. Along the way they establish a true friendship. Django marvels at the strange ways of an eccentric white man who treats him as an equal, and Schultz is taken with the similarities between his friend's noble quest and the German folktale of Sigmund, the knight who saves the princess Broomhilda from imprisonment by a fire-breathing dragon.
Their search for Django's Broomhilda ultimately leads them to the estate of the nefarious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a ruthless dandy whose preferred entertainment is pitting slaves against one another in gladiatorial combat. Schultz has an elaborate plan to extract Broomhilda from Calvin's terrifying Candyland estate, but if that doesn't work, Django is more than happy to shoot their way to salvation.
As of now, Tarantino's career as a feature film director can be divided into two periods, 1992 to 1997 and 2003 to the present. The first period saw the release of the trio of gangster flicks that made him famous, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. Post-Jackie Brown came a six-year hiatus, and it's worth noting that every film he's made since then has been a revenge picture, including the fun but flimsy Death Proof, in which a group of sassy modern women (they leave the dippy cheerleader behind, remember) avenge themselves against Kurt Russell's testosterone-fueled killer stuntman.
Kill Bill (volumes I and II, taken together) is the most contemplative of the three major projects since then, as its dazzling martial-arts mayhem eventually gives way to serious consideration of the emotional dimensions and psychological ramifications of revenge-seeking. Both Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained take that revenge more at face value, which they're able to do largely because the villainy is so extreme. Certainly the Holocaust and the American slave trade are two of the most appalling criminal enterprises in the history of the modern world. Not many people are going to quibble with gunning down Nazis and slave-traders, and that frees Tarantino up to focus on other concerns.
The moral dimension of Django Unchained comes not from the title character, whose quest is pure, but King Schultz. From the outset, the German expresses his dismay with the American slave trade, but he's a mercenary driven by self-interest. His only cause is his own. Once he befriends Django, however, and gains a more empathetic understanding of the lives of African Americans, Schultz develops a conscience he cannot ignore. Those who would argue that Tarantino is essentially exploiting slavery as a mere convenient backdrop to a flashy piece of violent entertainment overlook Schultz's dilemma and eventual conversion, and Tarantino in fact does a fine job of reiterating the visceral horrors of slavery that are too often downplayed in more polite historical depictions.
That being said, for Quentin Tarantino, ultimately everything comes back to the movies. Just as Inglorious Basterds was more concerned with the nature of war films than actual war, Django Unchained is set in a world whose parameters are defined more by movie history than actual events. Tarantino's version of the South is indebted to Sergio Leone's depiction of the West, which was in reality Spain and Italy mocked up to resemble an American setting. That's a significant remove from historical verisimilitude.
Tarantino's timeline, too, is more conveniently approximate than accurate, as he depicts the Ku Klux Klan existing two years before the Civil War, when it wouldn't be founded until after the war's end. The Klan’s inclusion here, in a very funny scene mocking rampant ignorance and general stupidity, is one of the movie's best cases for Django Unchained's existence as pop-historical fantasy: Sure, the chronology is wrong, but what would a black revenge fantasy be without the massacre of some peckerwood Klansman jerkoffs?
In that same vein, however, slightly more troubling is Tarantino's use of Mandingo fighting as a major plot point. No doubt slaves were forced to fight for their masters' entertainment, but Tarantino's suggestion of a broad Mandingo fighting circuit that functioned as a kind of nightmarish, racist Ultimate Fighting Championship is based more on the little-loved 1975 James Mason movie, a favorite of Tarantino's, than on recorded fact. Pop fantasy or no, adding to or embellishing the already innumerable atrocities of slavery seems, at the very least, in questionable taste.
Whatever your opinion about the historical liberties Tarantino takes in his pursuit of pop entertainment, undeniably Django Unchained succeeds wildly on those terms. As Tarantino has matured, he's found his greatest strength in building suspense during long, slow-paced scenes that build to unbelievable tension. The first twenty minutes of Inglorious Basterds were as riveting as anything seen onscreen in many years, and Tarantino matches those scenes with Django's excellent opening and later again in the movie's climactic confrontation between our heroes and DiCaprio's deliciously evil Candie at a dinner party. The film crackles with exceptional dialogue delivered with absolute perfection by the masterful Waltz, while Foxx makes for a wonderfully compelling badass gunslinger. The leads are aided by a typically well-cast supporting group that includes Samuel Jackson, Walton Goggins, Michael Parks, and M.C. Gainey. When Django draws his pistols and starts gunning down slavers in gouts of blood that would make Sam Peckinpah slap his forehead, you can't help but cheer, and you'll be singing that Django theme song to yourself for days.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.