Quentin Tarantino loves revenge as a central theme in his films. It took two Kill Bill movies to complete Uma Thurman's revenge on her traitorous gang and Inglourious Basterds delightfully reveled in historical fiction as a Jewish woman exacts her revenge on the entire Third Reich leadership in where else, a movie theater. How could Tarantino possibly top that finish? How about a freed slave exacting his revenge on white men in the antebellum south? That is a pretty juicy idea to play around with.
As in most Tarantino films, Django Unchained contains no believable characters, just caricatures who latch on to a few characteristics and sprint towards the extremes with them. The man who 'unchains' Django is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A former dentist turned bounty hunter, he is the most polite, progressive, and German killer on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line. The wanted dead or alive portion on his bounties never actually result in the bounty being roped up and delivered breathing to the local marshal's office. Instead, they are creatively duped and then riddled with bullet holes before being lashed on to a waiting horse acting as hearse. Unlike most shoot-em-up westerns though, the victims do not just get shot and fall to the ground. First, their blood spurts and splashes with noticeable velocity escaping through new holes in their flesh. The Nazi scalps which Lt. Aldo Raine was collecting in Inglourious Basterds was just a preamble to Dr. Schultz's carnage.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a semi-literate slave with a whole bunch of other skills which would be quite odd for an 1850s field slave to have. He rides a horse with ease, is an expert sharpshooter, and can latch on to a con man's role with the practiced agility of a pro. Dr. Shultz and Django do not just dive into situations with guns blazing to kill their quarry, they employ the art of the short con. To infiltrate Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation to kill the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz poses as a businessman, his usual character, and Django is his valet dressed up looking like a pimp from Black Dynamite. Remember, these are caricatures, not characters which is what makes Tarantino's film so much fun to watch.
There is no broader purpose which Django is following though. He is on a mission to meet his own needs, not to free slaves or further the abolitionist cause as a black John Brown. Django and his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), were sold at a slave auction to different bidders so now Django must find and rescue her. Yes, her name is Broomhilda von Shaft. Unfortunately for the both of them, a sadistic, cruel, and in-depth phrenology aficionado, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), bought Broomhilda and spirited her away to his vast plantation, Candieland. Yes, Candieland. Candieland is also home to the most eccentric, odd, and downright laughable character in all of Tarantino's films (including Rose McGowan with her machine-gun leg in Planet Terror), the head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Tarantino wrote Stephen and Jackson plays Stephen as a complete cartoon character. He is so over the top that Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, and Christoph Waltz all disappear from view when he enters the room even through they are all standing right there. He is the type of character best situated as the sidekick. If he had his own movie to carry, the audience would vomit from sheer exhaustion watching him scam, scream, and scurry around the screen. Jackson's portrayal of Stephen could easily be cited as best or worst supporting actor of the year; this reviewer could be persuaded either way. Regardless, once you have seen Stephen in Django Unchained, you will never forget him.
Dr. Schultz and Django now plan and perform a long con to get inside Calvin Candie's circle to try and free Broomhilda. This is where Tarantino takes his time to shock the audience with slavery's barbarity and outright horror. Up to now, the scenes of slaves were dubious, but almost comic. Dr. Schultz hands a shotgun to a slave and lets him decide whether or not to kill his owner, Django takes a whip to one of his former whippers, and there is a funny aside about how the Klan's choice of white headgear is extremely hard to see out of of when they go on the attack. Calvin Candie is being set up as a truly evil plantation owner though. His hobby is mandingo fighting where he uses his stronger male slaves as gladiators who fight each other to the death in hand-to-hand combat. One of these fights is filmed to its conclusion for the audience to struggle through. Later, Calvin orders vicious attack dogs to tear apart a runaway slave which has more stomach-churning screen time than you would think. A mom and dad brought their toddler to the screening I was in and I hope the little guy was asleep for that part. I do not envy the nightmares he would take away from the multiple scenes of carnage and gore which serve to remind the audience just how much these human beings were considered to be property.
Also, there is wanton use of the n-word all over the place. Every single character must utter it at least 20 times, black and white. The natural tendency would be to tune it out after awhile and for it to be relegated to white noise because it is used so much, but its usage is quite noticeable throughout as I suppose it was back in the 1850s. The overuse of the n-word has been a criticism levied at Tarantino before, remember his surprising use of it in Pulp Fiction. He is most likely the only white director who incorporates it so readily in his films, but it has its place in Django Unchained, if at times too much of a place.
Tarantino films garner certain expectations from the audience. There will be blood, gore, foul language, witty dialogue, and an homage to earlier films in the genre. Kill Bill Vol. 1 was in some ways a thank you letter to early martial arts movies, Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a western, both films in the Grindhouse double-feature drew on well, grindhouse films. Django Unchained is mostly a 1960s spaghetti western. Franco Nero, the original Django, has a cameo and and Tarantino incorporates a couple Ennio Morricone scores. If you are a Tarantino fan, you will love Django, if you are not, perhaps you will enjoy another fine Christoph Waltz performance or enjoy an unchained slave take it to the white man.