In the tradition of “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” and “Boss Nigger,” director Quentin Tarantino tips his hat to the exploitation cinema of the seventies with his own epic tale of slavery, freedom, and avenging those that have been unjustly murdered. Quite possibly Tarantino’s boldest and most courageous cinematic undergoing, “Django Unchained” is yet again another wonderful love letter to classic exploitation cinema, and one that Tarantino revels in soaking with adoration, providing viewers with one of the few African American western heroes with a back story that taps in to the tropes of the hero’s journey. While many did decry “Django Unchained” as exploitative and hyper violent, Tarantino definitely has his finger on the pulse and knows full well what immortalized the classic blaxploitation westerns. They thrived on hyper violence and slavery revenge fantasies and Tarantino holds nothing back with a relentlessly violent and entertaining love letter to his favorite sub-genre.
Much like other Tarantino’s offerings in to the cinematic realm, what begins as a simple mission for a character transforms in to a much wider scope of a character journey that pits a black slave named Django against a world that still firmly believes in the merit of slavery and uses African American slaves as a status symbol. Jamie Foxx gives a very dignified and often downbeat performance as the titular hero Django who rises from the ashes as a beaten man who finds bravery and courage to strike down his tormentors when given the resources by kindly King Shulz. Christoph Walz teams with Tarantino once again to create the valiant and often incredibly charming King Shulz, a fast talking intelligent and cunning fox of a bounty hunter who finds Django and rescues him to aide King in finding a bounty. When Django reveals his deeper connection with King’s bounty, as well as his potentially hostage wife Broomhilda, King begins to take a liking to Django and teams with him to not only hunt down other bounties across the country, but to ultimately retrieve Broomhilda from slavery.
Christoph with all of his masterfully delivered monologues, and easy going spirit is a wonderful antithesis to his conniving monster Hans Landa from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” offering the depiction of a hero of German descent who not only is a swift and cunning bounty hunter, but also believes in the value of human life. Through his subtle relationship with Django, King reveals himself to be a man of class and principle who despises the notion of slavery, and Django finds a mentor in King who views him as an equal rather than someone to pity. Django is a very justified and determined hero that Tarantino likens after McQueen’s Nevada Smith. Like Nevada, Django has to play various roles, and in the process of committing to his journey’s end, he has to unfortunately sacrifice innocent people that end up at the tail end of slave masters. The film builds to the confrontation with wicked plantation owner Calvin Candie. And while Tarantino has every advantage to play Leonardo DiCaprio, the character of Candie only enters in to the final half of the film. Tarantino allows DiCaprio’s performance and his writing to speak for itself.
And DiCaprio provides one of the most unusual and show stopping performances in his career as a despicable and ugly villain who spends most of his time making people suffer, and delighting in making people suffer. He’s a suppressed petulant man child whose intelligence is only measured by his wealth, and he often displays how exceptionally vicious he can be once we’re introduced to his knack for mentally destroying an attempted runaway slave before they’re torn apart by dogs, and enjoying a violent fist fight between two large slaves branded “mandingos.” Many have written off “Django Unchained” as something of a film that glorifies violence, but the judgment is incredibly misguided. True, Tarantino revels in creating a revenge fantasy, but he explores the more disturbing elements of violence, as he has with his past films.
Tarantino is often one to revel in the violent fantasy but also is quick to show his fans how violence can have painful consequences and often isn’t fun. Whether it’s the ear cutting in “Reservoir Dogs,” the anal rape in “Pulp Fiction,” the Jew massacre in “Inglourious Basterds,” or watching a slave being torn apart by wild dogs here, Tarantino shows us that violence is not an entertaining prospect, and can inflict immense pain. While “Django Unchained” is surely a film that explores Django’s tirade on the slave traders who ruined his life, the violence Tarantino opts for is difficult to sit through, and he’s smart to focus on the expressions of King and Django, both of whom must act as if the cruelty is just monotony at its worse. Tarantino provides us with a slew of incredible performances and he is able to get the best out of his entire cast, no matter how small a role may be.
Whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s excellent turn as Uncle Tom assistant Stephen, to the brief cameo from Franco Nero as the original Django, Quentin Tarantino knows how to utilize every single resource at his disposal and never settles for the bare minimum. “Django Unchained” is simply another of Tarantino’s masterpieces that was very much worth the wait. A controversial, bold, and subversive turn for Quentin Tarantino in the realm of exploitation and the Western, “Django Unchained” is an absolutely excellent revenge epic with Jamie Foxx and Christoph Walz providing mesmerizing performances alongside an ensemble of folks like Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, and Leonardo DiCaprio alike. This has to be seen by anyone who wants something different in theaters, from the man who continues to offer something new every single time he begins to mold a story.