Quentin Tarantino has been romancing the ghost of late spaghetti-western maestro Sergio Corbucci for two decades now. The first time anyone noticed Tarantino was in 1992, when Knoxville’s bastard son paid homage to Corbucci’s bloody 1966 film Django by restaging that movie’s infamous ear-slicing scene in his breakout heist-gone-wrong hit Reservoir Dogs. With Django Unchained, Tarantino has finally gone whole hog with his Corbucci man-crush.
It’s not a direct remake—as with his last nerdgasm, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained bears only the loosest narrative and thematic connections to the film that inspired it—but QT nails the over-the-top spirit of Corbucci’s ebulliently violent and happily offensive oater. Riding in at a blood-soaked, profanity-laced two hours and 45 minutes, Django Unchained is undoubtedly indulgent, but man, is it ever fun.
Django is the second mainstream film in as many months to tackle the odious subject of slavery. But while Spielberg’s Lincoln presented a cleaned-up, intellectualized indictment of the most shameful stretch of our nation’s past, Tarantino rubs our noses in the blood, sweat, and grime of the antebellum South. Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, a slave who is freed in the film’s first moments by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter hot on the trail of a trio of slavers known as the Brittle Brothers.
The brothers are really just a convenient excuse to get Schultz and Django together. They’re dealt with swiftly, freeing up Django for his real quest—rescuing his wife from an effete, utterly reprehensible plantation owner named Calvin Candie (an unhinged and terrific Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz offers Django a deal: In exchange for Django’s aid on a string of bounties, the dapper German will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Along the way, the pair hands out bloody, well-deserved ass-whoopings to a string of Klansmen, slave traders, and sadistic trackers.
It might sound like a form of indentured servitude, but the relationship that develops between Schultz and Django is one of mutual respect. The two men genuinely like one another; Schultz sees Django as a sort of Wagnerian hero and believes it’s his duty as a German to help the former slave see his story through to a hopefully happy ending. It’s a far cry from Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa in Basterds, though both characters evince a similarly cool-headed approach to tracking and killing humans.
On its surface, Django seems like safe territory for its writer/director. It’s politically incorrect, calculated to offend delicate (and, for that matter, not-so-delicate) sensibilities on either end of the right/left spectrum, and it revels in the bloody violence, cinematic references, and lengthy verbal showdowns that we expect from Tarantino.
But the film actually represents quite a long creative stride forward. To a large extent, Tarantino is in brand-new territory this time around. For his other films, including Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the two-part revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino has had what amounts to a vast chop-shop of exploitation cinema from which to assemble his machines. Django is the work of a more confident filmmaker.
While it is replete with nods to the Westerns and action films that he loves, Django is Tarantino’s most original work so far. It’s referential, but pastiche is the movie’s launch pad, not its final destination. Tarantino explores America’s grim heritage of racism in a way that most filmmakers—particularly white ones—have gone to great lengths to avoid. There will inevitably be debate over how effectively he handles the topic—some scenes in Django are tough to watch, and many people will take offense to the script’s 100-plus instances of the n-word—but the idea of an inoffensive film about slavery somehow seems infinitely more—well, offensive.
In spite of its bloody violence and intensely disturbing subject matter, though, Django is never cynical. At its heart, it’s a love story and a buddy movie dressed as a revisionist revenge fantasy. It’s not as lean as it could be (the late editor Sally Menke undoubtedly helped rein in Tarantino a bit, though Fred Raskin does an adequate job), but it’s boisterous, funny, weirdly touching, and always entertaining. Django gallops headlong down a fine line: It is escapist, frequently ridiculous popcorn cinema that still manages to hold us accountable for our sins and rattle some chains that, as recent events have shown, are newer and shinier than we’d like them to be.