I’m of two minds about Django Unchained. On the one hand, I find it to be a masterful bit of cinema. There is no doubt that Quentin Tarantino is one of the finest, most passionate and energetic filmmakers working today. He has yet to make a bad movie, and I would call several of his efforts masterpieces. His latest is wildly entertaining; by turns it is funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking, sometimes all at once. It is also gratuitously violent. Violence in service of a story has never bothered me before. Maybe it’s because of the tragic events in recent weeks, but for once I feel it is too much.
Jamie Foxx stars as the titular character, a slave in Texas several years before the start of the Civil War. While being marched to a slave market, Django is rescued by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. Schultz seeks the bounty on a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, and he believes that Django can identify them. Schultz promises Django his freedom in return for leading him to the Brittle Brothers. Along the journey they become friends and partners, and Schultz agrees to help Django save his wife, a slave with the priceless name Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who was sold to an infamous plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
This premise sets up what is on its most basic level an homage to the spaghetti western, as well as a revenge picture. In that way it is very similar to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; instead of killing Nazis his heroes slaughter white slave owners. I will not deny that it is satisfying to see Django evolve from a browbeaten slave to what is essentially a 19th century Terminator, carving a swath of destruction through the antebellum South as he attempts to rescue Broomhilda. Much of the appeal of the film comes from the performances. Foxx uses his focused intensity as Django to create a sympathetic hero, and one who truly develops throughout the film. Christoph Waltz is wonderful as Schultz. He is just as charismatic as he was as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, but here he plays a good man who loathes slavery. His final act of the film is both shocking, poignant, and poetically just. The real revelation of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Calvin Candie is as odious a villain as we’ve seen in a long time. DiCaprio further proves what a versatile actor he is and how far he’s come since his Titanic days. Also standing out is Samuel L. Jackson as the house slave Stephen, whose character is even more loathsome than DiCaprio’s.
The real joy of any Tarantino film is the dialogue, and as usual he does not disappoint; each actor seems to relish every word of his that they utter, particularly Waltz and DiCaprio; Waltz with his precise intonation, and DiCaprio with his slimy southern drawl. Tarantino once again uses the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, who should find himself a frontrunner for the Oscar. Fred Raskin takes over for the late, great Sally Menke, whose crisp editing keeps the film from feeling overlong.
And yet, as expertly made and entertaining as the film is, I find myself coming back to the violence. Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing the monstrosities done to the slaves, particularly when it comes to the Mandingo fighting, death matches that Candie organizes between his slaves. These moments are brutal and cruel, but I don’t have as much of an issue with these because they are an integral part of the story that serve to show that Calvin Candie is truly amoral and evil man. What I do have a problem with are the gun battles that permeate the third act of the film. Yes, the effects are intentionally overdone, with bloody exploding squibs that shower blood everywhere; the blood isn’t even very realistic looking. I recognize that this was a conscious decision to evoke the feel of a spaghetti western. But if we’re going to have a real conversation about the culture of violence and guns in this country, we can’t just talk about gun control. We have to talk about violence in entertainment. Now I believe that violence has a place in movies when it serves the story. But in the wake of something like the massacre in Newtown, I just can’t believe that violence for the sake of violence is its own justification.