Welcome to alternative History 101 with Professor Quentin Tarantino. In his last class, cataloged as Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino burned down the damn Third Reich, Hitler included. This time, with Django Unchained, he lines up slave traders so a black man can blow their fool heads off. Fuck the facts. Like Sergio Corbucci, who directed the first Django (starring Franco Nero), in 1966, Tarantino obeys the only commandment that counts in exploitation movies: Anything goes.
Who else but Tarantino would choose to target human trafficking in the form of a spaghetti Western set in the Deep South two years before the Civil War? And who else would do it to a wowser of a soundtrack that includes a taste of Ennio Morricone, a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur, and (a Tarantino rarity) original songs from Rick Ross, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend?
Django Unchained is literally all over the place. It twists and turns over an unbridled two hours and 45 minutes, giving history (and your stamina) a serious pounding. It limps, sputters and repeats itself. It explodes with violence and talk, talk, talk. Tarantino’s characters would be lost in the Twitterverse – there’s no end to his tasty dialogue. Not that you’ll care. You’ll be having too much fun. Django Unchained is an exhilarating rush, outrageously entertaining and, hell, just plain outrageous. You’ll laugh like hell at a KKK scene in which the Klansmen, wearing bags on their heads, stumble around blindly on their horses because the eyes on their bags have been cut out wrong. Look out for Jonah Hill as Bag Head No. 2. Unchain Tarantino and you get a jolt of pure cinema, dazzling, disreputable and thrillingly alive.
The plot kicks in when Django (Jamie Foxx on low simmer) is bought by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born dentist-turned-bounty-hunter whose wagon still sports a giant tooth. King is a great Tarantino character. Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing Nazi colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, is again spectacular in his blend of mirth and menace. King needs Django to ID the Brittle brothers, varmints worth a huge bounty, dead or alive. His reward is freedom. But Django needs King to locate his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
The slaughter starts when Django and King arrive at Bennett Manor, where even Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, pimped out and loving it) can’t stop the Brittle takedown. Job done, King advises Django to head off for a more enlightened part of the country. But Django won’t rest till he finds his love. And so begins the journey, beautifully shot in sun and snow by Robert Richardson.
The final destination is Candyland, the slave plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, having a ball as a charming, posturing sociopath who trains Mandingo warriors for sale and sport). Under the supervision of house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie dishes out whippings, brandings, beatings, dog attacks and castration. “Is that a nigger on a horse?” asks Stephen, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as Django rides in. Jackson, the tormented soul of Pulp Fiction, is outstanding at locating the complexities in this Uncle Tom with an agenda.
At Candyland, Django finds Broomhilda nearly dead as punishment for an attempted escape. Django is coiled to spring, but holds back during a nerve-shattering dinner scene in which he listens as Candie and Stephen talk of Broomhilda as flesh for use and abuse.
When Django’s revenge does come, it’s a gore-splattering doozy. Foxx, giving Django his cool-dude props at last, morphs into a cowboy John Shaft and opens fire. There’s something here to offend everyone. Revenge fantasies don’t leave much room for moral lessons. Django is out for blood. So is Tarantino, but he doesn’t sacrifice his humanity or conscience to do it. In this corrective to Gone With the Wind, he sticks it to Hollywood for a Mandingo-Mammy fixation that leaves the issues of slavery out of mainstream movies. He sticks it to Spike Lee, who once objected to Tarantino’s use of the n-word in 1997’s Jackie Brown, by spraying the word like machine-gun fire. And he sticks it to pundits who think he crosses the line by reveling in Django’s vengeance. Wake up, people. Tarantino lives to cross the line. Is Django Unchained too much? Damn straight. It wouldn’t be Tarantino otherwise.