#4 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.
Here’s the more focused and emotionally satisfying take on revenge. Where Inglourious Basterds ultimately falters in its final moments, Django Unchained thrives. The former sees a certain disconnect between its disparate acts of vengeance while the latter integrates them really well.
A group of slaves is being transported through the wilderness of the American South a few years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. A German dentist intercepts them and desires to purchase one of them from the traders transporting them. This is Dr. King Shultz, played spiritedly by Christoph Waltz, and he uses five words when one will do, but always at the service of making himself clearly understood. He rubs the traders the wrong way and gunplay gets involved. Shultz kills all but one, pays for the slave he wants, the eponymous Django, and leaves the rest of the slaves alone with the one trader who has become pinned under his horse.
So begins the roaring rampage of revenge that is Django Unchained. Dr. Shultz is a bounty hunter and he’s out to find the Brittle Brothers, former foremen on the plantation that Django had previously been held at. The mechanics of bounty hunting, the danger of it and the background of Django’s separation from his wife are all played out in an extended sequence in a small Western town. Dr. Shultz kills the sheriff calmly and, just as calmly, demands to see the local marshal. Shultz then precisely explains that the sheriff was actually a known outlaw with a bounty of several hundred dollars on his head and that the marshal owes Shultz money for killing him. That’s the movie’s comedic streak in a nutshell. It’s very dark and, if you’re into that sort of thing, very funny.
After the pair take care of the Brittle Brothers, the real plot of the film takes hold. Shultz is going to help Django get his wife back from her new plantation, a place called Candieland in Mississippi owned by the wealthy and cruel Calvin Candie. There’s a small detail about Candie that I love. As Shultz walks into the Mandingo Club where Candie is watching a fight, Candie’s lawyer explains that his client loves all things French. Shultz immediately breaks into French as a way to help ingratiate himself to his host, but the lawyer quickly puts a stop to it. No, he explains, Monsieur Candie doesn’t actually speak French, and to do so in front of him would embarrass him.
Django and Shultz are playing parts in trying to ingratiate themselves to Candie. Shultz is a wealthy man of leisure who is looking for something to add interest into his boring life while Django plays a Mandingo expert who’s there to help guide Shultz’s decisions. They want to entice Monsieur Candie into bringing them to Candieland where the German speaking Broomhilda, Django’s wife, is being kept. They’ll dangle the prospect of a large purchase of a Mandingo fighter in front of Candie, accidentally meet Broomhilda, fall in for her charms as a German speaking slave, and purchase her as a side element to the main deal for the fighter, which will never actually come to pass.
The play their parts well, and the most interesting part is Django’s ability to watch slaves beating each other to death with their bare hands so calmly. It’s not that he’s a nihilist or unmoved by the plights of these men, it’s that he understands his role and his goal. If he wants Broomhilda, he’s going to have to tolerate this and even approach the topic with some enthusiasm. His cruelty towards these slaves is what will help sell the ruse and get him his wife back.
Calvin Candie is a great villain, but Stephen, the house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson, is even more insidious. He’s so invested in the maintenance of his master’s status quo that he’s willing to be just as cruel to Broomhilda as Candie is. It’s Stephen who pieces together the small inconsistencies in the story the new pair are telling to determine that they are never going to buy the Mandingo fighter and their only objective is the female slave. It doesn’t matter to him if Broomhilda is going to find freedom or not. His master will be at the business end of a raw deal, and he wants nothing to do with that.
He tells Candie, of course, and Candie allows for Broomhilda’s purchase, but at the price promised for the Mandingo fighter. He won’t let his victory stay though, and he proceeds to further humiliate and insult Shultz. Once Shultz has enough, he blows Candie away, dying quickly as a result himself.
The stage gets set for Django’s ultimate rescue of Broomhilda and his bloody revenge. And here’s where Django succeeds. We’ve invested in Django’s journey, his rescue. The final bloody rampage isn’t just historical revisionism, it’s the culmination of Django’s labors. He’s earned the narrative right to kill everyone on that plantation who’s standing between him and Broomhilda. It makes the ending far more satisfying than Tarantino’s previous effort.
Again and again, Tarantino’s movies look great, and Django is no different. Colors are lush. The sets are wonderfully realized. Acting is universally good, especially Jaime Foxx as Django and Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. It is one of Tarantino’s most fully realized and satisfying films.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4