The “D” is silent, though the name of “Django Unchained’s” eponymous gunslinger sounds like a retaliatory whip across the face of white slaveholders, offering an immensely satisfying taste of antebellum empowerment packaged as spaghetti-Western homage. Christened after a coffin-toting Sergio Corbucci character who metes out bloody justice below the Mason-Dixon line, Django joins a too-short list of slaves-turned-heroes in American cinema, as this zeitgeist-shaping romp cleverly upgrades the mysterious Man in Black archetype to a formidable Black Man. Once again, Quentin Tarantino rides to the Weinsteins’ rescue, delivering a bloody hilarious (and hilariously bloody) Christmas counter-programmer, which Sony will unleash abroad.
After “Inglourious Basterds” and “Kill Bill,” it would be reasonable to assume that “Django Unchained” is yet another of Tarantino’s elaborate revenge fantasies, when in fact, the film represents the writer-director’s first real love story (not counting his “Badlands”-inspired screenplays for “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers”). At its core is a slave marriage between Django (Jamie Foxx) and Hildi (Kerry Washington), torn asunder after the couple attempt to escape a spiteful plantation owner (Bruce Dern, blink and you miss him).
Brutally whipped and then resold to separate bidders on the Greenville, Miss., auction block, Django and his bride — whose outrageous full name, Broomhilda von Shaft, blends epic German legend with the greatest of blaxploitation heroes — possess a love too great to be shackled by slavery. But getting even with Dern’s character doesn’t feature on Django’s agenda. After settling the score with his former overseers early in the film, he cares only about reuniting with his wife.
“Django Unchained” could also qualify as a buddy movie — an odd twist, considering that Corbucci’s original Django was a loner (as played by Franco Nero, who cameos in this film). Liberally reinventing a character bastardized in more than 30 unofficial sequels, Tarantino pairs this new black Django with a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, Waltz’s charming figure first emerges in the dead of night driving an absurd-looking carriage with a giant tooth bobbing on top — the first indication of how funny the film is going to be.
As in “Basterds,” Waltz’s genteel manner masks a startling capacity for ruthlessness. This time, however, he’s undeniably one of the good guys. Though he tracks and kills men for a living, the doctor is fundamentally fair, shooting only when provoked or justified. Happening upon Django’s chain gang, Schultz offers to buy the slave from his redneck escorts. When they decline, he leaves the traders for dead and liberates their “property,” enlisting Django in his bounty-hunting business.
Tarantino’s on sensitive turf here, and he knows it, using these early scenes not only to establish the cruelty shown toward slaves in the South, but also to deliver the same sort of revisionist comeuppance Jewish soldiers took upon Hitler in his last picture. Ironically, as a well-read and clearly more enlightened German, Schultz is disapproving of Americans’ claims to racial superiority, which positions him as the story’s moral conscience. When the time comes, he will accompany Django to Candyland, the plantation where Hildi now resides under the thumb of the unctuous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
But the film seems to be in no hurry to get there, focusing on Django’s most unusual education — killing white men — for the first 90 minutes of the director’s longest feature yet. Tarantino freely quotes from his favorite stylistic sources, whether oaters or otherwise, featuring lightning-quick zooms, an insert of unpicked cotton drenched in blood and a shot of Django riding into town framed through a hangman’s noose. Early on, Foxx appears to be following Waltz’s lead, but once the snow melts on the bounty-hunting subplot (an extended homage to Corbucci’s “The Great Silence”), all traces of subservience disappear and Foxx steps forth, guiding this triumphant folk hero through a stunning transformation.
True to its spaghetti-Western roots, the pic reveals most of its stoic hero’s unspoken motivations through garishly colored flashbacks, though Tarantino and editor Fred Raskin (stepping in for the late Sally Menke) seem to realize that limited glimpses of such white-on-black sadism go a long way. Filmmakers who choose to portray this shameful chapter of America’s past bear a certain responsibility not to sanitize it. But here, even as it lays the groundwork for “Django’s” vengeance, dwelling on such brutality can verge on exploitation. To wit, the film problematically features no fewer than 109 instances of the “N word,” most of them deployed either for laughs or alliteration.
While good taste doesn’t necessarily apply, comedy seems to be the key that distinguishes “Django Unchained” from a risible film like “Mandingo.” Both take a certain horror-pleasure in watching bare-chested black men wrestle to the death — the sick sport at which Candie prides himself an expert — but what better way to inoculate the power of a Klan rally than by turning it into a Mel Brooks routine, reducing bigots to buffoons as they argue about their ill-fitting white hoods?
Using rap and other cheeky music cues to similar effect, the script repeatedly finds ways to use the characters’ racism against them, most ingeniously in its somewhat protracted second half. According to Schultz, if he and Django were to show up at Candyland and offer to buy Hildi directly, they’d be laughed off the plantation, so they hatch a plan to pose as men looking to buy a mandingo fighter. But there’s a flaw to their logic, since the direct-request approach worked fine with Don Johnson’s “Big Daddy” earlier, it allows the film to explore the complex caste system among slaves.
There are two things Tarantino, as a director, has virtually perfected — staging Mexican standoffs and spinning dialogue for delayed gratification — and expert examples of both await at Candyland. Seductively revealing a dark side auds have never seen before, DiCaprio plays Candie as a self-entitled brat, spewing the character’s white-supremacy theories through tobacco-stained teeth. Like a Southern despot, he surrounds himself with menacing cohorts, none more dangerous than old Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who runs the affairs of Candie’s household and represents a form of toxic black-on-black rivalry still smoldering in American culture today.
Gorgeously lit and lensed by Robert Richardson against authentic American landscapes (as opposed to the Italian soil Corbucci used), the film pays breathtaking respect not just to Tarantino’s many cinematic influences, but to the country itself, envisioning a way out of the slavery mess it depicts. In sheer formal terms, “Django Unchained” is rich enough to reward multiple viewings, while thematics will make this thorny “southern” — as the director aptly dubs it — perhaps his most closely studied work. Of particular interest will be Tarantino’s two cameos, one delivered with an Australian accent, and the other alongside Jonah Hill in the “baghead” scene.