Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself with “Django Unchained,” adding a layer of heartfelt sentiment to his signature genre of socially responsible violence. From the beginning of his career, Tarantino has mined the dark corners of revenge fantasies for material, and in recent years he has broadened his scope to stare down some of the most heinous periods in recent history. “Inglorious Basterds,” released in 2009, took aim at those responsible for the Jewish Holocaust, and now “Django Unchained” settles the score of the antebellum south, where we first meet the enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx) and his unlikely ally, a German-born former dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (the unimpeachable Christoph Waltz).
Django is part of a chain gang of broken-down slaves led through a forest by the their masters when the group encounters Dr. Schultz on his horse-drawn dentist's cart, hilariously adorned with a giant bicuspid. The seemingly chance encounter, which quickly erupts into violence, is anything but: Schultz has been dispatched to capture the notorious criminal siblings known as The Brittle Brothers, whom he is unable to identify by sight. Having learned, somehow, that Django once worked on or near the murderous brothers' plantation, Schultz offers to buy Django from his masters. When they refuse, he disposes of one and incapacitates the other, freeing the slaves from their shackles to further punish the enfeebled master. He then easily convinces Django to come along with him by promising continued freedom and protection. In exchange, Django will lead him to the fugitives, earning a small piece of the bounty.
The commission is only a portion of Django's motivation: His larger aim is to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio at his most chilling), the proprietor of the Candyland estate. Dr. Schultz, who “despises slavery,” is happy to facilitate the reunion, in part because he is tickled by the idea that Broomhilda, who was originally bought by a German family, can speak the language of his home country.
The title character gets his name from the 1966 Italian spaghetti western “Django,” directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero, who makes a cameo in “Django Unchained.” That earlier ultra-violent film about a drifter seeking revenge on the men who killed his wife was one of the bloodiest of its time and appears to have inspired Tarantino's all-too-memorable signature ear-severing scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” Though Corbucci never did a follow-up to “Django,” imitators, in an attempt to capitalize on its notoriety, co-opted the Django name for artificial “sequels.” Also obvious is Tarantino's affection for the 1975 slave-fighting exploitation movie “Mandingo”: Candie is never happier than when he is watching two slaves try to beat each to death for his entertainment and profit.
The systemic horrors inflicted upon the slaves in real life were so unfathomably heinous that one might wish Tarantino had taken liberties with historical record and toned them down a bit in “Django.” But as Dennis Christopher, who plays Candie's lawyer accomplice, said of his research for the part in an interview for the press notes, “one of the things I walk away with is how little I really learned about [slavery] in school. And you can never know the depths of evil that a man can sink to unless you talk about it, unless you start the conversation, unless you illustrate it.”
And illustrate Tarantino does, unflinchingly. The terror in the eyes of a slave before a lashing, as she pleads desperately for mercy, tell us all we need to know -- yet we are not spared the crack of the whip. Still, he stops short of gratuitous displays of cruelty in later scenes; at least when the victims are innocent. The director instead takes extravagant, comical liberties in his shootout sequences, where gunshots ring like bombs and blood splatter defies Newton's laws.
Beyond avenging the horrors of slavery and American race relations in general, “Django Unchained” is also a study of friendship. Schultz and Django's bond is one that satisfies all three of the conditions in the Aristotelian model of friendship: utility, pleasure -- the enjoyment of each other's company -- and virtue: a shared commitment to the greater good. While Django's aims may not ultimately be as lofty as the doctor's, his unquestioning trust in Schultz gives the pair an inspired advantage on the way to moral victory.
Waltz's performance and the extraordinary character he plays are worthy of all manner of praise; none of it would hyperbolic. The Austrian-born actor has already proven that he can imbue the most sinister of villains with a fearsome humanity in “Inglorious Basterds.” Here, as a bounty hunter with a heart of gold, he is by turns a hero and a miscreant -- providing the film's moral compass along with swift, icy punishments for those who don't follow it. Dr. Schultz's insistence that his motivations are entirely selfish serves only to soften him, giving added grace to his peculiar generosity and self-sacrifice. While Dr. Schultz takes great pains to present a perfectly composed front to his enemies and targets, even at his most shaken, Waltz and Tarantino allow us to steal the occasional glance at the man beneath this immaculate surface -- one who is suffused with fear and regret.
It's no coincidence that “Django” slumps a bit when Schultz is out of the frame. Only then do we feel the indulgence of a filmmaker who doesn't always know when to say when. The coda of “Django Unchained” feels like exactly that -- a tacked-on sequence that, while perfectly entertaining, doesn't seamlessly build on what we have already seen and heard. But Tarantino will be Tarantino, and his love affair with excess is essential to our love affair with his work. Slavery is a touchy subject in American history, one that too many storytellers are afraid to dig into. Tarantino's refusal to take a delicate hand to it is as wise as it is bold.
Brett Forman is a writer, editor and musician living in New York.