Quentin Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti Westerns, Django Unchained, surpasses its cartoonish hype to deliver a serious Western with only modest Tarantino tongue-in-cheekery and oratorical excesses. The blood and violence is full bore, of course, as one would expect, but it flies hard and fast with less lingering gore as in the director’s previous indulgences. For those fans who chafe at Quentin’s personal cameos, the good news here comes two-barreled: Quentin’s acting is actually passable in Django, and his character is dispatched with enough violence to atone for all his previous inchoate incarnations.
Jamie Foxx (Ray) plays the titular Django, a man twice wronged: first by slavery, then by punitive divestiture of his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, Ray). The movie is basically a quest by Django to find and rescue Hildy, aided by Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). There are shootouts and surprises along the way until the pair finally arrive at the brutal plantation of the morally and sexually perverted Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The psychopathic Candie is Hildy’s new owner, aided and abetted in his evil rampages by an unforgettable Samuel L. Jackson.
The one glaring cliché trotted out yet again is the old white hat/black hat trope that homosexuality equates to archvillainy. Thankfully, Tarantino handles this theme with subtlety but it is yet one more reason the Klan will not be hanging QT’s picture over their bed at night. On a more commendable note, Django continues Tarantino’s policy of peopling his scenes with the talented stars of yesteryear who have been largely sidelined by Hollywood’s youth-centric decision-makers.
Curiously, Django’s many allusions to the 1950s mandingo movies in which white women uncontrollably lusted after over-sexed, over-endowed black men is misleading due to the complete absence of such scenes here. Although as hardcore as Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name, Django lusts after no one but his beloved wife and no one lusts after Django. He is, though, dutifully over-endowed with masculine fighting abilities (“the fastest gun in the South”). In fact, Django’s wholesale slaughter of Southerners makes one wonder whether the South could have mustered a single army to start the Civil War after Django depopulates it in 1858.
Most noteworthy about this movie is its vivid portrayal of slavery and racial injustice in the antebellum South. Instead of descending into facile melodrama, Tarantino employs uncharacteristic realism and humanity in these scenes, leavened with his trademark black humor. His rendering is artistic and the performances he elicits are exceptional. The emotional chord Django strikes with this malevolent theme rises to the level struck by Spielberg’s Lincoln and truly establishes Quentin Tarantino as an auteur.