On the surface, the phrase “refuge in audacity” quickly comes to mind. But buried deep beneath the floorboards of this explosive, over-the-top stage—and dragged very quickly to the surface at the drop of a hat—is violence, determination, and all levels of passion, and it presents itself naked, unabashed, right in your face.
Django Unchained, the latest from the cutting room of Quentin Tarantino, tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed and employed by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They work together to bring down Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Candyland plantation master and slave-fight connoisseur who controls Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
As was said before, this has all the fun facets of a Tarantino picture set in the American South just before the Civil War, and it tackles a surprisingly serious subject: slavery, the violence and subjugation of an entire race in a nation founded on freedom. It is a cruel practice fueled by bigotry and enforced by law, and despite the humor, despite the fun and hilarity, the overblown excitement of each and every action scene, this subject is presented raw and uncut.
There will be people, I can assure you, who will complain that the film is too violent for their tastes, that it was hard to take seriously because of the violence. Well, quite frankly, slavery in America was violent. I was born and raised in Virginia, Capital of the Confederacy, and every history book I read as a child, every plantation I visited, every museum exhibit I spent more than thirty seconds examining made one thing perfectly clear: slavery was terrible, and I applaud Quentin Tarantino for not holding back, for depicting Antebellum America exactly as it was and for giving his main characters a chance at fighting back.
Dr. King Schultz, a kind-hearted convict killer, nevertheless shows his soft side when subjected to the severity of slavery. The German traveler, the foreigner, he is time and again disgusted, appalled by the abhorrent behavior of nearly every white American he encounters on his journey, his valet Django “Freeman” by his side. Nevertheless, this does little to curb his sunny disposition, his shining optimism and confidence, and after seeing Christoph Waltz play the most terrifyingly cunning Nazi in fictional existence, it’s refreshing to see his talents given to the role of the good guy.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, also lending his talents to an archetype so far separated from any role he’s ever done, stands Leonardo DiCaprio’s deceptively suave and all-too-real Calvin J. Candie, a twisted man born into privilege and plantation ownership, a terrifying man who has slaves trained to fight to the death, who not only not only studies phrenology—the pseudoscience used to justify the implementation and continuation of the enslavement and subjugation of “lesser peoples”—but believes it, wholeheartedly and sincerely believes that what he’s doing is not only okay, but is in fact the natural order of things. This mindset, this scientifically-applied bigotry that is the platform for Candie’s character is what makes him truly terrifying, and DiCaprio does not hold back for even a moment, lending both strength to the character and reassurance to the idea that DiCaprio may be one of the most versatile actors of our time.
And then we have Django, a slave at the end of his rope who, when offered a hand of civility, a chance at freedom and finding his beloved wife, not only jumps the gun, but takes it and exacts divine retribution on all who would stand in his way. Now, I’ll be the first to admit: I’m not a Jamie Foxx fan. The last films I thought elicited decent performances from him were Collateral and Ray, and those were eight years ago. So to watch him turn around and deliver a performance as sardonic and madcap heroic as this was incredible. Django thrusts himself head-first into scenarios that are simultaneously heart-wrenching and gushing with hilarity, and he handles it all with such cocky panache and brazen gusto, you’d be forgiven for believing Foxx had been channeling the spirit of a young and reckless Clint Eastwood. True, his character was entirely static: he was very much illustrated as a straightforward cowboy gangster with no deeper motivation than finding his wife. He is, quite simply, a hardcore, no-nonsense, gun-slinging bad boy. Maybe Django deserved more than just the occasional introspective moment. But he was still fun to watch.
Which brings this around to the film itself. It is, at the end of the day, many things: over-the-top, reckless, hilarious, dark, depressing, violent, shameless. And that’s what makes it great: Tarantino has taken a serious subject and shown it for what it really is, and he still manages to get plenty of laughs and a sense of adventure and, more importantly, hope channeling through the film. The laughter isn’t just out of relief, either, although that definitely helps. No, sincere humor and appreciation resonated in that crowded theater as everyone cheered for Django.
Despite the dark and stark themes, and assisted by incredible performances from major and minor cast alike—Samuel L. Jackson is both hilarious and terrifying, and Tarantino himself makes his most explosive and unforgettable cameo ever—Django Unchained is more than just an homage to spaghetti westerns of old. It is a film that, like Django once the shackles came off, is more than capable of standing strong on its own two high-octane feet.