At it’s heart, Django Unchained is a rather naïve film. Not that any of Tarantino’s earlier films have specialized in emotional sophistication, but this is really the only film he’s ever made that is, at its heart, a romantic fairytale about a hero on a semi-mystical quest to save his damsel in distress. Of course, anyone that’s seen the world’s most famous homage artist’s previous work will recognize that’s too simplistic for Tarantino – this particular film is a Germanic legend, wrapped in a 70s spaghetti western, wrapped in social justice served up with a side of bad-ass.
From the first line of the movie “Who’s that stumbling around in the night,” we are in a fairytale, in the middle of a deep, dark wood, with a couple of bad, bad slaver wolves leading a group of slaves through a cold night in 1858. Suddenly, a magically eloquent, knowledgable Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz), who seems at first glance to be a dentist, but in actual fact is a bounty hunter, appears. He’s looking for a trio of villains, whom Django (Jamie Foxx) is in a unique position to point out. As the slavers are less than enthusiastic about parting with their newly acquired stock, they are quickly and effortlessly dispatched. The good doctor releases the slaves, and promises Django his freedom upon the dispatching of the no-good Brittle brothers.
This, of course, is merely the inciting incident. The pair quickly become a duo of successful bounty hunters, and after a number of adventures together, set out to find and rescue Django’s young wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is apparently, at the moment, owned by the not-a-little disgusting Monsieur Candy, played to a fault by Leonardo DiCaprio – the one time teenage heartthrob playing a villain that would put Darth Vader to shame. He is unlikeable to a fault, cruel, vain, and frankly not very intelligent.
Along the way to the rescue, Django has a series of hallucinations of his wife watching him, a happy smile across her lips. These visions seem to drive the bounty hunter ever further into the surreally racist territory of Candyland. The evil of the place is palpable enough for a viewer to believe that bringing down that onerous establishment would contribute substantially to the betterment of African Americans in slavery everywhere, terrible though their conditions are throughout the rest of the South the film explores.
Jamie Foxx’s performance as the eponymous Django is characterized by enormous poise and swagger, he becoming the epitome of cool towards the end as he exacts vengeance on the wrong-doers. The last man he punishes in the film is, paradoxically, a black man as well, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays a house slave that bends over backwards to please his master. He seems to lead a rather comfortable live among his owners, at the price of brutally ruling over the other slaves on the plantation.
The major aspect that makes this movie memorable beyond an average spaghetti western is, of course, the exploration of the practice of slavery in the American South. There is no question that in that regard, Tarantino is exaggerating for effect. He takes a practice that is already despised by every decent person, and piles additional half-truths on top of it. To some viewers, this is likely to be off-putting. It isn’t unreasonable to, when watching two men fight to the death for other’s amusement, for example, to ask oneself, “why would I watch this? Why, indeed, would anyone?” Particularly when this isn’t, in actual fact, a historically accurate practice. The answer, of course, is revenge. We watch a film that is in many ways about cruelty so that we may watch those we despise be destroyed in a spectacularly dramatic fashion, so we may experience justice for an event for which we no longer have anyone but our ancestors to blame. This retroactive justice was already explored by Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, and it is as bloody satisfying in Django.