DJANGO UNCHAINED, the latest provocation from enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, is disreputable, exploitative, and offensive. It is also the most challenging and compelling new film I’ve seen this year. This is a blatantly contradictory response on my part, but Tarantino is a director of contradictory impulses.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Tarantino’s controversial 2009 release, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, a pulp revisionist history of World War II where the Nazi regime meets its demise at Jewish hands. BASTERDS is broad, pulp entertainment laced with revenge fantasy, but it is also a subversive commentary on propaganda and history and the ways in which one informs the other. Refusing to let one angle completely overtake the other, Tarantino exploits the Holocaust in the service of spinning a good yarn even as he subverts his own exploitative instincts.
DJANGO UNCHAINED is cut from the same cloth as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, it serves up a historical revenge fantasy—but, if only on a surface level, it is a bit more assured and elegant than its predecessor. BASTERDS suffered from a slapdash, unfocused narrative and jarring tonal transitions. DJANGO is more focused and more consistent, even as Tarantino ramps up the comedy (moments of DJANGO play like excerpts from BLAZING SADDLES) and gives other moments in the film a sense of gravity and heft unprecedented in his body of work (more on that in a bit).
BASTERDS was hardly the first film of Tarantino’s to serve up a revenge narrative; including DJANGO, Tarantino’s last four feature films all explore vengeance in one form or another. But while previous films, either out of a fondness for complicated story dynamics or due to conscience, Tarantino complicated his revenge narratives (often through humanizing the “enemy” and dehumanizing the “hero,” as he does in both KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), in DJANGO UNCHAINED, the antagonists are uniformly despicable, as if Tarantino cannot bear to treat the perpetrators of slavery as anything other than grotesque fiends.
There is a similar revulsion on display whenever Tarantino portrays the abuse of slaves. In DJANGO UNCHAINED, the tragedies of slavery are brutal and agonizing, given a weight and severity that wasn’t even given to the murder of Jews in the opening moments of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. This is not to say that they do not, in some way, fall into Tarantino’s fondness for sadistic violence, but these acts seem like moral transgressions in a way that the violence inflicted on victims in KILL BILL or DEATH PROOF did not.
If the gravity of its villainy distinguishes DJANGO UNCHAINED from the rest of Tarantino’s body of work, UNCHAINED does follow Tarantino’s usual pattern for his revenge narratives: “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” His vengeance-seeking protagonists are not necessarily heroic, but are rather mirror-images of the villains, monsters created by monsters, but monsters that happen to be fighting for the opposite side.
So the “unchaining” of the title is essentially an unleashing. As the ex-slave Django (played with intensity and magnetism by Jamie Foxx) comes into his own, the more brutal he becomes. The story identifies Django with the Siegfried of legend, as a hero rescuing his beloved damsel, and accords him heroic fanfare (Tarantino, in his fondness for pulp tropes, cannot help but grant Django the title of “fastest gun in the West”). But the ending of the story is haunted by the horror of institutionalized, normalized slavery and the savagery of Django’s vengeance. Even the film’s use of the Siegfried legend suggests darker shadings to this revenge story; when a character recites the story of Siegfried and Brünhilde, he cuts the story short, leaving out the legend’s famously tragic conclusion.
The character who recites the Siegfried legend, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a scene-stealing performance), serves as the film’s conscience. Like almost all Tarantino characters, Schultz is painted in shades of gray; Schultz hunts criminals as a bounty hunter, killing them without compunction, and has a penchant for playing egotistical games with his targets. But Schultz’s arc, which is more pronounced than Django’s, sees him increasingly troubled by the moral compromises he is forced to make as he and Django strive to rescue Django’s wife, compromises which Django makes without compunction or regret. If Django’s conscience regarding these matters has been seared by the trauma of slavery, for Schultz, they are a fresh wound.
The horrors of slavery crescendo, leading to the most sincere moment in the whole of Tarantino’s filmography. Having nearly rescued Django’s wife, with freedom nearly within reach, Schultz is asked to make one more compromise. As a single act, it is the least of all the moral compromises they have made so far, but as a symbolic act, it encapsulates all that Schultz has done so far: Schultz is asked to shake hands with the enemy, plantation owner Calvin Candie (imbued with a sinister sliminess by Leonardo DiCaprio). In moral indignation, Schultz not only refuses the compromise, but in that moment actively and instinctively turns against the enemy, unable to resist destroying the evil any longer. There can be no compromise with evil of this magnitude.
From that point on, DJANGO UNCHAINED transforms into a long-form apocalyptic bloodbath, which serves merely as an exclamation mark on Schultz’s choice. This drawn-out climax is the film’s most significant misstep. The climactic battle lacks the power of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’ terrifying cinema conflagration, trying to compensate for the lack of a striking visual conceit with buckets of blood. If it runs on too long, Tarantino does conclude the film on a note that is effective, if not especially imaginative: he literally blows the “Genteel American South” to bits.
The condemnation implicit in that final image proves an effective condemnation of a corrupt society toward which cinema has too often turned a too-kind eye. But it is so overtly a piece of cartoonish cinema fantasy that its artifice ultimately does not assuage the real tragedies and complications of slavery’s role in American history. It’s both cathartic and painful. So when DJANGO UNCHAINED mocks the Ku Klux Klan (in one of the most inspired comedy sequences I’ve seen in years), it is like a joke during a family dinner about a past family tragedy: it might be funny, but it hurts, too.
It is ultimately these contradictions that make DJANGO UNCHAINED so irresistible. It desires to entertain and also to horrify, to serve up cartoonish pulp and also to pull back the curtain on all-too-real evil. These impulses mingle together and even enhance one another, resulting in an altogether human film, the sort of film that engages with the complicated web of cultural memory that is cinema itself.