On a Tennessee plantation in 1858, gunshots ring out and a man falls dead in a field, his brains splattering blood on the cotton bolls. The victim is a white slaver, the killer a black slave — Django (James Foxx). After Inglourious Basterds, in which he endowed World War II Jews with the imaginary power to kill Hitler, Quentin Tarantino now frees a black man to take revenge for two centuries of racial humiliation, when a crafty German named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) invites the slave to join him as a bounty hunter, and eventually to take revenge for the kidnapping of Django’s wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) by a venal gentleman of the antebellum South. “Kill white folks and they pay you for it?” he replies. “What’s not to like?”
“What’s not to like?” is a tantalizing question in Django Unchained. The phrase lays out the blithe anachronisms and brazen amusement value of the Pulp Fiction dude’s latest tribute-provocation. The sound track of this 19th-century mortality play is peppered with songs from the 1960s and ’70s, including Richie Havens’ “Freedom” and Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name”; the setting may be the Civil War, but the aural and visual vibe is distinctly Vietnam-era. And in the splatter-fest category of haven’t-seen-that-before moments, Django dislodges a rider from his mount by blowing holes in the heads of the man and his horse. It’s all meant to be in the aid of understanding America’s sad heritage of white men owning and abusing blacks — as Schultz, the one sympathetic white man in the movie, acknowledges when he enlists the not-yet-freed Django in the bounty-hunting game. “For the time being, I’m going to make this slavery rigamarole work to my advantage. Having said that, I feel guilty.”
(READ: Corliss’s review of Pulp Fiction)
Tarantino isn’t the guilty sort, but his films do address dodgy social issues in a tone that veers between examination and exploitation. A clog dance on the knife edge of racism, Unchained contains, according to Variety, “no fewer than 109 instances of the ‘N’ word”; and, because Tarantino is incapable of a stodgy image, it graphically displays black men whipped and tortured, or threatened with gelding while hanging naked upside down. One scene — an extended, extreme wrestling bout between two Mandingos — left members of a preview audience in shocked, nearly audible silence, as if they’d been tricked into witnessing an atrocity.
The film’s chief villain, the plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is allowed to spout a phrenological treatise on the small brains of African slaves. Candie’s house slave and consigliere Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) harbors even more malevolence: he imprisons Hildy in a “hot box,” a kind of sauna coffin, and would give his life to betray his race and defend his master. Yet some who should know consider the film’s violence therapeutic: yesterday the NAACP nominated Django Unchained for Outstanding Motion Picture in its annual Image Awards.
(READ: Coverage of the year-end film critics’ awards)
A pastiche that’s nearly as funny as it is long (2hr. 45min.), and quite as politically troubling as it may be liberating, Django Unchained is pure, if not great, Tarantino. At 49, after eight features, the writer-director has become his own genre, running weird, violent, maniacally elaborate variations on the movies he learned to love as a Manhattan Beach video-store savant a quarter-century ago. He honored and reconstructed the Hong Kong crime drama City on Fire in Reservoir Dogs, gave ’70s blaxploitation epics a feminismo makeover in Jackie Brown, spliced and diced a dozen Shaw Brothers martial-arts films into the Kill Bill diptych, revived the auto-eroticism and carnage of grindhouse revenge epics in Death Proof.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Death Proof)
The new movie takes its title and some of its particulars from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti Western Django, whose success spawned dozens of imitators and was itself inspired by Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Corbucci’s antihero (Franco Nero) rode into a lawless town dragging a coffin that contains a machine gun that will make corpses of the men who killed his wife. He also faced down a posse in red hoods — Ku Klux Klan couture that boasts of its bloody intent — whom Tarantino turns into proto-Klansmen complaining that they can’t see through the eyeholes of their homemade bag-masks. Appropriating the haunting Django theme song composed by Luis Bacalov and sung in full-throated Elvis ballad style by Rocky Roberts, Tarantino also gives Nero a cameo: When Django spells his name and adds, “The D is silent,” Nero whispers, “I know.”
(FIND: two Sergio Leone films on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)
Tarantino is a longtime Corbucci fan and borrower: the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs is straight from Django (except that, in the original, the victim is forced to eat his own ear). As Jury President of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Tarantino presided over a Corbucci retrospective. He also did a lusty acting turn in Takashi Miike’s nutsy 2007 Japanese tribute Sukiyaki Western Django. In Unchained, QT attaches the title of another Corbucci oater, Minnesota Clay, to a saloon, and quotes from Corbucci’s Northern Western The Great Silence, in which a mute Jean-Louis Trintignant rides through snowy landscapes — as Foxx and Waltz do here — on his path to dark destiny.
(READ: Corliss on Westerns, Corbucci-style)
References to other Italian oaters abound, from the wide screen filled with gigantic closeups of mean men with clenched teeth to snatches of theme songs by Luis Bacalov and the great Ennio Morricone (who contributes a new song here). But you don’t need a Ph.D. in Spaghetti Western Studies to detect the mythic and pop-cultural influences on this fever-dream farrago. Hearing Hildy’s full name — Broomhilda von Shaft — will cue the audience to two connections: the classic German heroine Brunhilde, with Django as her Siegfried, and the cool ’70s movie cop John Shaft, whom Tarantino implicity pegs as Django’s and Hildy’s great-grandson.
(READ: A tribute to Italian movie maestro Ennio Morricone)
In the subversive pairing of a black and a white man in the Old West, Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles may ring a bell, or the 1971 sagebrush comedy Skin Game, with James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr. as con-men partners. The ’70s also spawned some spectacularly lurid melodramas set in the Old South, including Mandingo, with ex-heavyweight champ Ken Norton as the sex slave of fluttery plantation ladies, and the mockumentary Goodbye, Uncle Tom, in which the directors of Mondo Cane submitted Haitian blacks to nearly as much degradation as their slave forebears. Roger Ebert called the film a “vomit-bag of racism and perversion-mongering.”
(READ: Corliss on the Mondo career of Gualtiero Jacopetti)
Forty years later, Tarantino must believe his depiction will be understood as satire. His virtuosity as a picturemaker and an actor’s director almost validates that assumption. Waltz, who in QT’s Inglourious Basterds (another movie named after an Italian action film) earned an Oscar as the Third Reich officer pursuing Jews in France — the German Javert — flashes the same orotundity and weaselly charm here, but with noble intentions and savvier marksmanship. His Schultz is the viewer’s modern-voiced guide through mid-19th-century mores, as when he explains bounty-hunting by telling Django, “Like slavery, it’s a flesh-for-cash business.” Theoretically supporting Foxx in the title role, Waltz doesn’t steal the picture; he’s handed it and handles the opportunity with effortless craft.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Inglourious Basterds)
As in so many Tarantino films, the featured players, especially the villains, get the juiciest roles. Jackson, sprung to stardom in Pulp Fiction, is creepy-conniving terrific as a slave wielding sick power over his kind. DiCaprio, whom Tarantino had first considered for the role eventually taken by Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, takes several pages from the Johnny Depp fop book as the Candie man. Flashing his yellow teeth and waving his cigarette holder like the baton of a conductor leading the Ninth Circle of Hell Symphony Orchestra, DiCaprio is a jaunty, smiling Satan — and the actor’s first role in years where he seems to be enjoying himself. He, Waltz and Jackson are surrounded by a passel of veteran tough guys from the movies the director loved in his video days (Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, M.C. Gainey, Tom Wopat), plus Jonah Hill in that incongruous, endless jape about the bag-masks, and QT himself in two small roles.
(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s 10 Questions for Leonardo DiCaprio)
So where, in Django Unchained, is Django? Taking the role intended for Will Smith, and playing a rebel within shouting distance of Nat Turner (with a longer life span), the Oscar-winning Foxx is Waltz’s sidekick, not the star, for most of the film. Raised in rags, Django dresses as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy when he gets a chance to pick his own couture, but the character isn’t nearly as colorful. “You’ll be playing a character,” Schultz tells Django as they prepare for their bounty-hunter gig. “And during the act, you can never break character.” Sounds as if Foxx is to follow Daniel Day-Lewis’s total-immersion technique. But Tarantino doesn’t expend much effort in tracing Django’s arc from slave to gunman to the righteous husband set on revenging the crimes against his wife. Washington has even less to work with: a pretty pawn in a stream-set dream sequence. The love story that could be at the movie’s center gets the most perfunctory treatment.
(READ: Josh Tyrangiel’s profile of Jamie Foxx)
That’s no surprise. Though Tarantino’s first script was called True Romance, his fascination lies with the way people articulate their strange passions on the road to violent death. Because the Django character — unlike Schultz and Candie and Stephen — has no distinct voice, and can’t lend rancid eloquence to his feelings, he is a cipher right up to the end, when he gets to kill white people, dozens of them, in a vivaciously choreographed blood bath. Django Unchained may not reach the delirious heights of Pulp Fiction; its climactic crimson orgasms lack the emotional gravity of the fatal tilts in Kill Bill. But it’s undeniably, gloriously Tarantino: all talk and all action.