Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the only filmmaker alive capable of making ridiculously entertaining movies about disgusting moral transgressions. In his World War II epic, “Inglourious Basterds,” Mr. Tarantino gave us an alternate version of history in which a group of Jewish-American soldiers successfully put an end to Hitler and his top officials at a movie screening. In “Django Unchained,” the writer/director’s latest, and perhaps best film, the audience is given another dose of historical justice in the vein of a spaghetti western. “Django Unchained” uses the western genre to justify raucous scenarios, implausible shootouts, and mounting suspense—all of which aid the movie in becoming a masterpiece of sheer thrills, a treatise on cinematic violence, and an indictment of slavery.
Set in the antebellum South, the movie exposes and exploits the atrocities of slavery and racism through the story of Django (a subtle and satisfying Jamie Foxx), a freed slave turned bounty hunter in an attempt to buy his wife’s freedom from Candyland, a notorious slave plantation run by Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio at his boyishly sinister best).
The movie opens with shackled slaves trudging across expansive mountainous terrain when a smooth-talking German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (the great Christoph Waltz), attempts to buy Django’s freedom so he can help identify two brothers Schultz is trying to hunt down and kill. What Schultz hopes to be a simple business transaction turns bloody when Django’s owners refuse to sell him, setting the tone for an excessively violent movie that will make you squirm in your seat, gasp, laugh, cheer, and may even tempt you to leave the theater.
Mr. Tarantino is known for his graphic movies, but “Django” reaches a pinnacle of blood and guts never before seen in the history of cinema (the movie is so graphic I don’t feel I need to have seen every movie ever made to make this claim). Many will find the violence inappropriate and gratuitous, but Mr. Tarantino’s trademark style serves a lofty purpose that transcends his previous masterpieces. The violence in his “Kill Bill” films was a homage to Asian martial arts movies, a love song to their acrobatic style of action. In “Inglourious Basterds,” the violence served no other purpose than sheer gratifying vengeance. In “Django Unchained,” the violence is troubling but quite necessary for the movie’s goal of reaching an astonishingly successful balance between moral outrage and pure moviegoing fun. However uncomfortable the movie makes us feel, it is nothing compared to the tortuous reality of slavery. Mr. Tarantino’s exaggerated and hyperactive style of action is an acknowledgement that every depiction of slavery, however earnest it may be, can never capture the full truth of America’s greatest sin.
With its relentless onslaught of racism’s barbarities, the movie often makes you sick to your stomach. In one scene, a slave is eaten alive by ravenous dogs because he refuses to take part in “mandingo fighting”—a repugnant “sport” in which two slaves are pit against each other to the death for the amusement of morally bankrupt individuals like Calvin Candie. Candie justifies his business by invoking phrenology, an outdated pseudoscience that claimed a person’s intelligence and overall character traits are defined by physical configurations of the skull. It’s at Candie’s estate where Mr. Tarantino’s mastery of cinematic suspense is on tantalizing display.
Posing as businessmen looking for the best mandingo fighters Candie has to offer, Django and Schultz infiltrate Candie’s estate to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). During dinner, the tension builds and churns into a scene of rising dread as one character slowly becomes wise to our heroes’ ruse. The scene is a commensurate setup for an outrageous shootout that leaves the mansion no longer just a moral tomb, but a very literal blood-stained grave in which evil is laid to rest by the black hand of justice.
Much like Mr. Tarantino’s previous films, “Django” lacks any kind of moral ambiguity, any kind of grey area in which we might find ourselves sympathizing with a villain. For Mr. Tarantino, the perpetuators of slavery are evil, and bloody revenge is the only path to true justice. And, through the course of the film, we always agree with him. There are good guys and there are bad guys in Mr. Tarantino’s movies, and we’re never confused about which side we’re on. “How do you like the bounty hunting business?” Schultz asks Django, to which he replies, “Kill white folks and they pay you for it—what’s not to like?” It’s a sentiment the audience shares: we cheer when racist white men die, and we’re horrified when their wickedness is triumphant.
The movie’s deft ability to manipulate its audience to a certain, predetermined moral viewpoint is risky, but it is nonetheless a testament to Mr. Tarantino’s skill as a storyteller. He is a master of point of view and authorial control. We see exactly what he wants us to see, and we leave the theater feeling exactly as he has intended us to feel.