This might seem like an odd thing to say about the man who gave us the blood-soaked extremes of Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and, well, any of his other films, but for whatever reason I always expect his films to completely slip the leash and run wild. Django Unchained maintains the madness of the director’s earlier films, but more so than ever before, it feels like he has kept his most extreme instincts relatively in check.
Django Unchained begins with a fairly simple A-to-B narrative. Pre-Civil War era slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is acquired (in a classic Tarantino opening scene, rivaling Inglourious Basterds) by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter on the search for three wanted brothers. However, it soon becomes apparent that this hunt encompasses only the film’s opening third, and a much more sprawling story unfolds over the course of the close to three hour running time. For assisting Schultz, Django earns his freedom and the pair enter into a vengeful partnership in pursuit of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave sold to the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Perhaps more than any of Tarantino’s previous films, it feels like he is really trying to say something with Django Unchained. As great as a film like Pulp Fiction is, it really works on cool factor alone, and couldn’t exactly be praised for its depth. Here however, Tarantino seems to know precisely when to dial back the cool to comment on the nature of human violence. While full of outrageous gunfights packed to the brim with geysers of gore, the film features an alarming amount of up close, almost intimate brutality that is very upsetting.
Which feels to me like precisely the point. The savagery inflicted upon slaves by their white masters is shoved right in the audiences face, and is much more difficult to endure than the exaggerated violence of the guns, which draw more laughs than anything else. Tarantino has never shied away from violence in his work, but the very clear binary nature of the bloodshed in Django Unchained feels very carefully thought out, and really opens the film up for deeper analysis than anything he has done before.
That said, Django Unchained doesn’t completely escape Tarantino’s self-indulgent streak. The sheer length of the film will certainly cause some viewers to question the necessity of much of the final 30 minutes, particularly the baffling sequence in which the director makes his obligatory cameo appearance. Also, the most egregious use of a certain n-word since Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is going to raise eyebrows with conservative audiences, opening the debate of whether Tarantino is simply courting controversy in the hopes of drawing a crowd.
Aside from perhaps the director himself, the acting is top-notch across the board, with Foxx and Waltz sharing great chemistry, and DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson (as house slave Stephen) both hilarious and frightening in equal measure. Django Unchained navigates a razor-thin space between raucously entertaining and unapologetically confronting, yet rarely veers too far either side to become either exploitative or preachy. It’s a familiar but somehow surprising effort from Tarantino, and while it may not rank amongst his most well-crafted films, Django Unchained stands out as a bold and completely assured work from a modern auteur doing exactly what he wants to do.