When Quentin Tarantino does historical revisionism, he does it with a giant red Sharpie. I’m happy to thank him for this. After rewriting the anticlimactic finale of World War II as a cathartic revenge fantasy in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he has taken a similar approach with the troublesome history of American racism with Django Unchained, a similarly sprawling tale, outlandishly violent screed against intolerant a-holes who finally get to meet violent ends at the hands of the oppressed. I just wish I knew here he was going with this next. Will Tarantino’s next film turn out to be a sword and sandal epic about the twelve apostles riding lions into the Parthenon to avenge the crucifixion of Christ? Because that would be sweet and you know it.
Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django – the “d” is silent – a slave acquired by Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, who himself is a former dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django to track down his latest quarry, The Brittle Brothers, whom only Django, apparently, has seen in person, They were the ones who brutalized our hero and his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, on their plantation. In return for his assistance, Django will earn his freedom. There’s something potentially troubling in Schultz’s character, who willingly holds Django’s freedom hostage for personal gain, but Tarantino goes to great lengths to organically demonstrate that Schultz is actually a dyed-in-the-wool abolitionist who only resorts to racist social conventions out of tactical necessity.
That racism, by the way, is unmistakable throughout Django Unchained. Many film critics I know have attempted to count the number of times the “N-word,” as it has come to be known, is spoken aloud in here. I took the bait and lost count at 85. Another critic I know lost count at 115. But the hateful speech comes from hateful characters, and even if Tarantino had restrained himself – which would have felt historically inaccurate, given the subject matter – the pervasive attitudes of the 19th Century towards persons of color would have been unmistakable without it. Django Unchained is about racism, damn it, and it portrays that racism in all of its ugliest forms. Django Unchained is custom made to make you uncomfortable. Django Unchained is also custom made to punish every character responsible for making you feel that way. The racists, including a memorable Leonardo DiCaprio, consistently fill this cesspool of blind hatred, justifying their ignorance with meaningless rhetoric that Tarantino chooses to equate to the long-debunked “science” of phrenology.
Quentin Tarantino’s efforts to portray the American South as a broad spectrum of violence, complete with deliberately digressive asides to the comical nature of the Ku Klux Klan, turns Django Unchained into a sometimes unwieldy epic. Django’s journey lacks the narrative efficiency of revenge flicks like Taken or Man on Fire. Instead, Tarantino opts for the I Spit on Your Grave route, with imagery of the violence for which vengeance must be taken taking up as much if not more screen time than the actual catharsis. The effect is that Django’s revenge is ultimately more satisfying, but that the build up may test the patience of more casual moviegoers. Django Unchained has satisfying action crescendos, but it's not always an easy film to watch, and it was certainly made with that purpose in mind.
With Django Unchained, Tarantino once again affirms his place as a filmmaker whose inspirations are both clear and consistently subverted. This is a western of the classic spaghetti tradition, of which most audiences are only familiar through the classier Sergio Leone films but which also included a vast swath of motion pictures – like the various Django films – that relished in the oft-sadistic violence and grimy sexuality of frontier living. Rather than simply luxuriate in that tradition, Django Unchained uses those surface tropes in service of a greater message about violence itself, and our country’s too-often whitewashed (ahem) history of institutionalized hatred. That a white male made it would be problematic if Django Unchained felt apologetic or exploitative. Instead it feels like a dramatization in service of a greater truth: that the punishment never fit the crime.
One of these days, Quentin Tarantino is finally going to make some absolute crap. This is not that day. Django Unchained is yet another great film. Even his sloppiness feels refined.