In “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx plays Django, a black slave purchased for about a hundred dollars and freed by a German dentist and bounty hunter named Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A straightforward treatment might have involved having the slave run away north. But the movie Quentin Tarantino has written and directed is corkscrewed, inside-out, upside-down, simultaneously clear-eyed and completely out of its mind.
Django is married. He and his wife (Kerry Washington) were savagely lacerated and separately sold. He’s not free until she is. So he works as the bounty hunter’s sidekick, with the bounty hunter agreeing to help him find the wife and rescue her from a Mississippi plantation.
Set in 1858, this isn’t a runaway narrative. It’s a run-toward narrative, rigged for shock. Each scene lays a stick of dynamite and lights a fuse that runs down and down and down until the whole thing blows up like the Fourth of July. I’ve never seen anything like this movie, not in one 165-minute sitting, not from a single director, not made with this much conscientious bravado and unrelenting tastelessness — this much exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.
Tarantino has never been more himself than he is here. The movie is absurdly violent. When a slave owner is shot up in the opening minutes, the blood doesn’t splatter. It splashes like a bowling ball that fell 50 feet into a full bathtub. The film’s assortment of snipings, bludgeonings, and massacres don’t stoop to Tarantino’s typical fatuousness. Almost every corpse wears a principled toe-tag of vengeance.
Tarantino has also never pushed himself, as he does here, to understand what it would mean to harness his cinematic promiscuity, to merge the properties of the spaghetti western, the blaxploitation movie, the Hollywood prestige picture, broad satire, and high romance into a movie whose resulting taxonomy is simply Tarantino.
The first half of the film is a kind of buddy-movie picaresque in which Django and Schultz traverse the country picking off wanted men and sharing the payday. A comic upside of Django’s freedom is going from rags to ruffles and electric blue knee pants and a matching cutaway jacket. He looks like something from the Andre 3000 Little Lord Fauntleroy collection. Schultz schools Django in the ways of the marksman, while Django grips his freedom tight. The astonished stares of other slaves and their white owners seem to embolden Django, say, to lash the white brothers who whipped him and his wife.
The sustained climax is set in and around the Mississippi plantation that ensnares Django’s wife, Broomhilda, a beauty who speaks fluent German. To gain entry, he and Schultz concoct a scheme in which they gain favor with the plantation owner, a flamboyant priss named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), by pretending to be a pair of slave traders shopping for brutes to win the bare-knuckle death matches plantation owners were known to stage for their private entertainment. The prospect of being a black “slaver,” as Django puts it, nauseates him. But by this point he’s so close to Broomhilda that he holds his breath and commits to the ruse.
Tarantino raises the stakes by naming the brawls Mandingo fights, a reference to a 37-year-old plantation-bound cult-movie provocation full of interracial lust, a boxing slave, and the salty ham of James Mason. Tarantino stages his own such fight in the parlor of Candie’s Cleopatra Club, and it’s the most brutal scene he’s ever devised, which, for him, is really saying something. The black people in the room can’t bring themselves to watch. But Candie becomes increasingly unhinged with exhilaration. DiCaprio has never been afraid to try anything. Still, this is the loosest and weirdest he’s allowed himself to be.
The movie’s a hard mix of meticulous cartoonishness and unexpected power. In order for it to work emotionally you have to believe in Django and Broomhilda beyond Foxx and Washington’s sexiness. You have to feel that they’re two halves of one heart. Tarantino shows them fleeing together in a flashback shot in greens and blues and over-saturated (the rest of the movie is scarlet and sunny; it’s warm). They’re holding hands running, pursued, across an open field. The image of Washington’s anguished face hovers onscreen, and if these are the images that haunt Django, they’re also images that haunt us. We want him to find her because it’s romantic but also because it’s just. That sequence is as close as Tarantino will ever come to oblique passion of Toni Morrison.
He knows what the stakes are and keeps finding clever ways to raise them. They don’t get much higher — or lower, perhaps — than Stephen, the head servant at the Candie mansion. He gets a load of Django, turns defensive, then smells a rat. Samuel L. Jackson plays crusty, waxen Stephen as a vision of depraved loyalty and bombastic jive that cuts right past the obvious association with Uncle Tom. The movie is too modern for what Jackson is doing to be limited to 1858. He’s conjuring the house Negro, yes, but playing him as though he were Clarence Thomas or Alan Keyes or Herman Cain or Michael Steele, men whom some black people find embarrassing.
For years, Jackson has been enabling Tarantino to fancy himself this honorary negro. Jackson can deliver the n-word, and other profanities, with ketchup, mustard, and relish. It’s the same here. That word might be fired off more than any bullet. But Jackson is going for something that’s different from the sleazebag he played in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” The white vileness in “Django Unchained” is one thing — it’s stock, even DiCaprio’s psychological version of it — but Jackson’s is what sticks with you. We’ve never seen as life-size a black monster as this, not even in D.W. Griffith. Jackson turns the volume way up on his entire persona to broadcast the nightmare of black self-loathing. It’s a terrifying, fearless, and easily misconstrued performance.
That kind of acting makes it easy to overlook what Foxx pulls off. It’s a hard part. Django is the moral and emotional core of this movie, the human force that keeps the whole thing from sliding into kitsch. There’s a gravitas to Foxx now that commands your attention. He likes the comedy of the part — the way Django saunters on a horse in that Fauntleroy getup, for instance. But mostly Django is forced to keep his head down or look away from atrocity, and you can feel Foxx smolder while the character buries his dignity in order to reclaim it.
The subtlety of that achievement might go unnoticed in a movie that culminates in an orgy of guns and blood. Tarantino’s increasingly sophisticated idea and filmmaking are also easily reduced by the minds of some moviegoers. I really like “Django Unchained,” but I didn’t like watching it amid the moronic laughter of some of his movie-geek fans. That’s the fascinating danger of Tarantino’s revisionism. There’s more than one way to love it.
No filmmaker gives you as much as gleefully as he does. He’s 49 now, and there’s a new maturity in his style. His interests haven’t changed but his attention to craftsmanship as both a screenwriter and conjurer of images is stronger without sacrificing any of the thematic ludicrousness of his imagination. Waltz is his stand-in here, and for the first 70 minutes or so you can tell Tarantino’s so proud of what he’s written for the stand-in to say.
Tarantino is making the same shift that the great modern Hollywood directors (Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood) have from childish things to Important subject matter — WWII and the Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds” and now the Deep South and slavery. But he’s different from the directors who brag about coming up through, say, Roger Corman but whose movies gradually achieve a tastefulness that has nothing to do with a movie like “Caged Heat” or “Cockfighter.”
Tarantino is a generation younger than Spielberg and Scorsese. He didn’t come up through Corman. Corman comes out through him. Tarantino’s gutter tastes are immune to the pieties and sentimentality of so-called prestige moviemaking. He likes the mess and slop and spatter of the movies, the splash of a bloodbath. You’re drenched in guts and acting and wizardly dialogue, in Tarantino’s now peerless gusto, in his talent for tonal conflation, in gags and and gotcha suspense. You’re also awash in his shortcomings.
“Inglourious Basterds” is naive revenge-revisionism, exhilarating because it’s angry but appalling because it’s crude. Slavery is a more forgiving milieu for Tarantino’s revenge fantasias. He’s set “Django Unchained” before the Civil War and clears a space that gives him room to bend history without breaking it. This film also reimagines rebellion, but it’s wisely wrapped in the personal straits of a husband and a wife.
Tarantino is young enough not to rue the past. He’s angry enough to toy with and immolate it. This time he manages not to cheapen that history’s wounds — his characters wear them. He manages to recast the Hollywood guilt so foreign to him. Schultz tells Django, “I’ve never given anyone their freedom before and now that I have I feel responsible for you.” But Tarantino knows the history of race in the movies well enough to understand how nauseating a sentiment that is. Django takes care of himself.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that the movie was set.