Django Unchained takes 165 minutes to make its case against slavery, but if there is a single moment that can stand in for the entire movie, it is the one in which the blood of a slave owner spatters across white cotton buds on a sun-kissed plantation.
Excess and economy have driven Quentin Tarantino’s genre-reworking exercises ever since he made Reservoir Dogs in 1992. The men in Django Unchained slay each other first with smooth talk and then precise firepower just as in his other movies, so if there is a sense that we’ve seen it all before, it’s because Tarantino won’t have it any other way. Of all the genres the pastiche artist will rummage through till the very end, the silent movie isn’t likely to be on his list.
Set in the American South, Django Unchained is a superbly performed comeuppance comedy. The notion that black people can be bought and sold like horses gets Tarantino’s goat, and he suggests quick-fix measures for the injustice: Blast the villains to bits and unleash wisecracks while you’re at it. If Django Unchained’s mix of entertainment and editorializing is more successful than its predecessor, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, it’s because Tarantino’s fairy-tale screenplay is rooted in fact. Mandingo fights, in which black men are ordered by their white owners to fight other black men to death, might be drawn from fiction, but the widespread slavery in the plantations of the American South, and the inhuman conditions in which some of the slaves lived and worked, is straight out of history books.
While the original Django was a mercenary seeking revenge for his wife’s death in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti Western, Tarantino’s so-called Southern also pays tribute to American blaxploitation revenge fantasies from the 1970s. His hero is a slave who is freed by bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to assist in the killing of three brothers, who previously owned Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The deed done, the good German makes Django his partner. Together, they shoot their way through the South until they reach Candieland, the plantation where Broomhilda is a slave (there’s a hilarious encounter with addle-brained Ku Klux Klan members on the way). The lord of Candieland, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is an unapologetic racist who believes that blacks have diminished mental abilities, but Candieland’s real master is the canny butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who contradicts his master’s low opinion of black intelligence levels. Jackson, who seems to be Tarantino’s lucky charm, even popping up as a shadow in the distance in Kill Bill, plays a man who is a slave in every sense of the word. He represents the triumph of a system in which the progress of a privileged few is oiled by the sweat of millions.
Despite its setting, Django Unchained is hardly a message movie, so there are plenty of genre pleasures on display. The gorgeous widescreen camerawork and rich colours and tones are by regular Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson. Since we are in the unique cinematic world called Tarantinoland, there are references to iconic movies (Franco Nero, who played the original Django, has a cameo), elaborately choreographed displays of bloodletting, and characters whose rottenness only enhances their charisma. Tarantino’s good-and-evil duel is neatly worked out between the wily Schultz and the noble Django in one corner and the bigoted Candie and his loyal manservant in the other. Washington’s Broomhilda has trouble fitting in. She is the most poorly written character in the movie despite being the provocation for the rumpus. The extent of Bromhilda’s evolution is from victim to cheerleader.
Django Unchained arrives in Indian cinemas with its violence and profanity intact (the movie has an adults-only rating), but with three fleeting moments of nudity snipped out. This is a movie in which utterances matter more than deeds. Django is fast on the draw but he can’t match Schultz’s ability to use 18 words where two would do. Candie is quite the wordsmith when it comes to articulating his meanness. Django ultimately gains his own voice, literally and metaphorically, and draws a blood-soaked curtain on a unjust social system by firing away dialogue and weapons. In a Tarantino movie, we can’t imagine one without the other.
Django Unchained releases in theatres on Friday.