Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Franco Nero
To call Quentin Tarantino unique among working filmmakers is to do him a disservice. It undersells and under-explains what Tarantino does as a filmmaker. Some see him as an expert, if limited, mash-up artist. Others see him as the exemplar of post-modern filmmaking, simultaneously deconstructing, subverting, and celebrating his favorite genres. Tarantino combines low- and high-art, reputable and disreputable genres into a singularly hyper-stylized and hyper-violent mix. In essence, Tarantino has taken disparate influences and interests and created a recognizably cinematic universe where homage and pastiche are the norm, where history is as malleable as fiction (and vice versa), primal instincts like revenge offer Tarantino and, by extension, the audience, the opportunity to get their minds and emotions exercised (if not exorcised). Tarantino’s first film in three years, DJANGO UNCHAINED, is no exception.
When we meet (Jamie Foxx), he’s literally in chains, an anonymous slave among other anonymous slaves, destined for a slave auction in pre-Civil War Texas. Fate, in the form of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), however, intercedes. On the surface, Schultz appears to be an affable, loquacious traveling dentist. He’s not, of course. Tarantino’s films almost always turn on characters assuming identities, often to the detriment of other characters that may harbor suspicions, but act on them when it’s too late to save their own lives. In Schultz’s case, he’s a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter and he wants Django’s help in identifying three itinerant overseers who Django knows on sight. Django’s current owners aren’t interested in selling him, unsurprisingly leading to a literal bloodbath (par for the Tarantino course), that leaves Django in Schultz’s debt, Django pretends to be his servant for an interlude at a Southern plantation. That interlude almost goes sideways, but it results in Schultz taking on Django as his full-fledged bounty-hunting partner.
Once again, Tarantino’s general disregard for traditional narrative storytelling (e.g., three-act structure, goal-focused central character, identifiable character arc, minimal subplots) is in evidence. DJANGO UNCHAINED’s central storyline, Django’s search for and attempt to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), takes more than an hour to come into focus. Earlier, episodic scenes map Django’s progress from freed slave to bounty hunter, with Schultz more or less the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Django’s Luke Skywalker, only switching to Django’s backstory after a seemingly casual conversation between the two men awakens Schultz’s chivalrous nature. Broomhilda’s name spurs Schultz into a lengthy disquisition on the Nordic sagas that formed the basis for Richard Wagner’s Nordic epic opera, “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).”
Any talk of feudal knights, dragons, and sacred quests gives way once Schultz and Django cross paths with Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a brutal, vicious slave-owner who owns and operates, among other things, a slave-fighting ring. It’s more than just one more film reference (to Richard Fleischer’s notorious MANDINGO, a pre-ROOTS exploitation melodrama); it reveals Candie’s unredeemable nature. He may be a product of his time, place, and upbringing, but he’s also a sociopath more than willing to take advantage the social, political, and cultural advantages (an understatement, definitely) to his own benefit. Broadly portrayed by DiCaprio, there’s nothing to suggest anything redeemable about Candie or Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the personification of the “House Negro” taken, like everything else in DJANGO UNCHAINED, to extremes.
Stephen occupies a peculiar position in Candie’s household. He’s a slave, but he’s also Candie’s confidant and advisor, sensitive to his privileged position in Candie’s world and, like Candie, willing to do anything, up to and including betraying his own race, to retain that position. He’s also just as willing to throw the N-word around. As accurate as the N-word usage might be, it’s also prodigiously abused. Again, that’s par for the Tarantino course. Tarantino sees social, cultural, and political mores as opportunities for transgression and DJANJO UNCHAINED is no different. Whether it’s the disturbing, disconcerting use of the N-word or the graphic depiction of violence apart from the hyper-stylized gunfights, Tarantino revels in transgression and subversion. Tarantino rarely pays
Still, there’s little subtext in DJANGO UNCHAINED that isn’t already text. Given Tarantino’s proclivity for prolixity, that’s certainly not surprising, but it’s also a conspicuous step down from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS where Tarantino handled the demands of narrative storytelling better and infused INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS with enough subtext to keep Ph.D. students in cinema studies busy for the next decade. DJANGO UNCHAINED’s complete and utter lack of subtlety or restraint becomes an additional problem during the predictably long dialogue scenes where Django takes a secondary position to the ornately verbose Schultz, making him, if not a cypher (Django’s motivations are never in doubt), then more of a character type or even archetype, an action-hero stand-in without the necessary depth.