NEO NOIR. Satire. Burlesque. Critics have tried to pin these labels on “Django Unchained.” I think “vintage tongue-in-cheek Tarantino” would be a more appropriate description.
Quentin Tarantino likes to play games with his audience, engaging them in a charade, egging them to discover the farce in his films. He did so in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” the “Kill Bill” volumes and, more recently, “Inglorious Basterds.” He booby-trapped his films with pranks and sardonic humor, and his characters were caricatures of less noble and even criminal stock that managed to endear themselves with the viewers.
John Travolta and Samuel Jackson were bickering hitmen in “Pulp Fiction.” Uma Thurman singlehandedly dealt with a crew of comic strip–inspired foes in “Kill Bill.” And Christoph Waltz was the evil but impeccably cultured Nazi officer in “Basterds.”
Tarantino playfully foists his films on the audience and thinks, “Let’s see how far I can go.” Amazingly, he almost always gets away with it. The audience lets themselves be swept along on a farcical but fun adventure.
For “Django Unchained” Tarantino transforms a popular spaghetti western antihero into a black slave on a quest to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Django (Jamie Foxx) is unshackled after Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, shoots down the slave traders who were transporting Django’s group.
Schultz singled out Django because he can identify three brothers the bounty hunter has been tracking. He disguises Django as his valet to gain entrance into a Southern plantation where the brothers were working. After executing the brothers, Schultz offers to make Django his partner while helping him look for his long-lost wife.
Their partnership results in several lucrative kills. In the process Django hones his shooting prowess and acquires sartorial flair. The duo learns that Broomhilda lives in Candieland (another subtle Tarantino touch), a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie is the archetypal evil landowner, whose Southern gentility hides a bloodthirsty streak. He has built a reputation for staging fights to the death between Mandingos, black slave gladiators.
Schultz and Django have a preview of Candie’s lust for blood after he lets dogs tear apart a Mandingo who had opted to flee than fight.
With Schultz’s help, Django and Broomhilda meet in secret and the three plot her escape. Over dinner with Candie, Schultz feigns interest in Broomhilda because she speaks German, having been taught the language by her former employers. He tries to buy her from Candie for $300.
Before Candie could ink the deal, he is brought aside by Stephen (Samuel Jackson), his loyal manservant, who correctly deduces that Django and Broomhilda are far from being strangers. Candie rages at Schultz for the duplicity and demands $12,000 for Broomhilda’s freedom. Schultz agrees but before the agreement could be sealed tempers reach a flashpoint and mayhem breaks loose. Schultz shoots Candie but is himself killed. Django holds off Candie’s henchmen but had to turn in his guns after Stephen threatens to shoot Broomhilda.
Django is hauled off to a mine and his wife locked up in a cabin. Django convinces his guards that he is a bounty hunter who will share with them the booty for several outlaws hiding in Candieland. Naturally he kills the guards after they free him. He fetches Broomhilda and sets off to Candieland to exact revenge.
He murders Stephen and Candie’s sister and blows the Candie mansion sky-high. Even in the final burst of violence, Tarantino couldn’t help but dig into his bag of naughtiness. Broomhilda covers her ears with her fingers, just like a little child would as New Year’s fireworks explode. And Django lets his horse prance in a sort of victory jig.
“Django Unchained” is not one of Jamie Foxx’s strongest performances and DiCaprio does not quite project the cruelty of Candie. It is Waltz who shines as Schultz, the cold-blooded executioner who goes out on a limb for his partner. He was delightful as the SS Colonel Hans Landa in “Basterds,” and as the ruthless circus master August in “Water for Elephants.” But his Schultz in “Django Unchained” is far more absorbing.