Django Unchained | Movie review
Quentin Tarantino avenges slavery.
Inglourious Basterds faced criticism for, shall we say, modifying the circumstances surrounding Hitler’s death, but that 2009 masterpiece comes couched as a fantasy; it’s less about WWII than WWII movies. With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino again rewrites history with cinema, avenging slavery the way he did the Holocaust, to entertaining but diminished effect.
As with the last film’s “once upon a time” disclaimer, Django starts by signaling an alternate time line: A title card suggests the Civil War began one year earlier than it did. “Somewhere in Texas,” dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, again fantastic with the repartee) frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx), resorting to violence when language fails to sway. Schultz explains to Django that the bounty business, like slavery, deals in selling bodies for cash. The duo team up for the winter, tracking fugitives en route to rescuing Django’s wife, a German-speaking slave named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington).
Par for the course for the Pulp Fiction director, Django unfolds in a proudly referential universe: Here’s Ennio Morricone’s Two Mules for Sister Sara score, there’s a credits scrawl from Gone with the Wind. A scene of Klansmen arguing over whether to wear hoods plays like an outtake from Blazing Saddles. Django takes his name from a beloved spaghetti Western character, but the key source may be Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, a 1975 plantation melodrama from which Tarantino’s film seemingly borrows its brutal slave-fighting motif. Broomhilda is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mississippi aristocrat who watches one man kill another with a hammer.
After a superb first hour, the movie settles down at Calvin’s Candyland estate, and the pace begins to flag. Part of Basterds’ exhilaration stemmed from its counterintuitive structure. Without QT’s chaptering fillips, Django merely replays scenes from the previous film. Waltz’s character speaks German to avoid being overheard; a lengthy dinner sequence dumbs down the celebrated tavern standoff. Less quotable than usual, the monologues begin to feel like wheel-spinning.
As retreads go, Django Unchained is as much a comedown from its predecessor as Lars von Trier’s Manderlay was from Dogville. (The four films might make a fascinating quadruple bill on slavery, fascism and imagined Americana.) Basterds was held together by its cinema-as-weapon metaphor, watching as everyone from projectionists to a film-critic lieutenant banded together to fight the Nazis. Cartoonishly showcasing slavery’s horrors, Django lacks a similar conceptual distance; Samuel L. Jackson’s mugging as Candie’s master-lovin’ housekeeper comes as close to playing with fire as anything Tarantino has done. It’s tough to say whether the inevitable carnage is cathartic or represents a failure of imagination.