Quentin Tarantino has been on a slow journey toward making a spaghetti western his entire career. It was inevitable he would mine the part of his brain where he stored the sights and sounds of films made by guys named Sergio and Ennio. He’s used Leone techniques and Morricone music in previous genre mash-ups, but never as he does in Django Unchained. Not content to pay tribute, Tarantino applies Italian western elements to what is an essentially a slave narrative/buddy film taking place two years before the Civil War. It may also be his bloodiest film to date.
Jamie Foxx plays Django, an escaped slave who was forced to watch the whipping of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), after their forbidden marriage was discovered. German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) comes across Django and takes a shine to him, delighted that his new protégé has a German-speaking wife. Django helps Schultz — who travels the country under the guise of a dentist, complete with a wagon adorned with a large molar — capture the fugitive Brittle brothers, proving his worth as a partner while keeping hope alive that he can find his wife.
Their odyssey leads to Bennett Manor, where gregarious white-suited patriarch Big Daddy (Don Johnson, hamming it up to the max) inadvertently points the pair in Broomhilda’s direction. She’s now owned by tyrannical Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a tyrant who obtained her for the purpose of pleasuring his “Mandingo” fighters. Schultz and Django visit the Candyland plantation under the pretext of purchasing a fighter, with Schultz feigning interest in Broomhilda as a German-speaking companion. Candie’s aged house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) becomes suspicious of Django before Schultz can seal the deal, leading to a bloody showdown.
There’s still plenty of post-showdown violence to come that almost makes the film’s previous highlights seem like distant memories. Waltz steals the show, delivering the film’s sharpest dialogue with gleeful panache, until the visit to Candyland. Jackson pulls off a rare feat with his role. Stephen is both sympathetic victim of societal circumstance and power-addicted villain, a complex character only Jackson could create and inhabit. His performance outshines Foxx’s tribute to Clint Eastwood, but doesn’t detract one bit from the bravery Kerry Washington had to muster for her role.
It’s not Tarantino’s best, though, perhaps because after the initial tributes to spaghetti-western cinematography, it starts to feel like the auteur chose the subject matter so he could indulge in his favorite racial epithet. He rises above that notion, although the idea that this film is a tribute to Sergo Corbucci’s 1966 Django is overshadowed by the direct influence of Sam Peckinpah in the film’s gunfight scenes. Django Unchained gets increasingly gory and violent during its marathon length, but while the “N-word” lives on in Tarantino’s world, his symbolic destruction of “uppity” as a derisive adjective in a particularly explosive scene garners him absolution.
Django Unchained Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Quentin Tarantino, rated R, 170 mins