Three films released this year have tackled the long-gone issue of American slavery in different ways. Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” fictitiously attaches the guilt of the “peculiar institution” upon a covert vampire gentry, whereas Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” takes a more political approach, showing the tedious efforts which brought about the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery in 1865.
The third film, the slavery-centered western “Django Unchained” by writer/director Quentin Tarantino, comes off as a deft intersection between the two, a hyper-realistic account of deep South slavery so vilified and obscene that the depiction itself seems comical – and certainly unnecessary.
Going for the extremes in the name of artistic vision is not new to Tarantino, though. The 49-year-old director has left his calling card in the film industry with movies such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and the “Kill Bill” series. These films brought a brand new level of over-the-top violence and unsettling character situations which push the viewer’s ability to stomach what would otherwise be a desensitizing display of guns and squibs.
The same factors appear in “Django Unchained,” but when applied to the already touchy subject matter, may cause more ire and distress than Tarantino intended.
Otherwise, the film stands as one of the most intriguing attempts at a western in recent years. Whether judging by the solid cast, a cavalcade of dynamic characters and the tangible, dangerous world that the story unfolds in, “Django Unchained” gives the audience a thrilling ride when not dousing them in vulgarity.
Django (Jamie Foxx), a battered slave being transported through a cold Texas night, is abruptly bought by the puzzling bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He needs Django’s help to find and slay a group of outlaws hiding on a plantation, and in return, Schultz will grant Django his freedom. Django agrees, but vows to find and free his wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington), no matter how many plantations he must infiltrate, or how many white slavers he must kill in the process.
As stacked as the story seems, it unravels with the cadence of a graphic novel, albeit with blood specking the pages and a harder exploitative lean. As usual, Tarantino’s mix of genre-specific camera tricks, unforeseen bouts of humor and anachronistic musical choices, such as a hip hop banger playing over a firefight in lieu of a conventional Ennio Morricone score, gives the film both the exciting lawlessness of a western and the peculiar aesthetics tied to the director.
The actors give good performances in the midst of this world. Foxx and Waltz hold their own as the protagonists who, at first, hold a functional relationship that soon evolves into a richer bond based on each man’s solid humanity. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the morally destitute slave owner Calvin Candie, shines in his attempt to constantly justify the sub-human nature of the black man.
Candie discusses the then-sound theory of phrenology over dinner, finds insatiable humor in one of his slave’s terrible ignorance and subjects his slaves to the worst forms of subservience at the time – bare-knuckled, gladiatorial combat and prostitution. He is the staunch personification of the antebellum South, unfazed by routine cruelty and only hoping to conduct more of these acts for his benefit.
As such, the depiction of slavery in “Unchained” will hit viewers with a reckless abandon more often than it should. The camera shots on a slave’s bare, lacerated back is solemn, but understood; yet forcing the audience to witness a brutal slave fight that is treated as a side note by its in-film spectators is clearly intended to shock audiences. There is also the runaway use of the n-word which, while certainly used in great measure at the time, becomes as common as a pronoun in this film.
The haphazard form of enslavement does fall in line with Tarantino’s go-for-broke style, as each gunshot still produces a geyser of fake blood – and some gunshot victims still howl for minutes before dying. He did take major liberties with his aggressive tone, though, and many African-American viewers will find fault in a Caucasian director using slavery so harshly.
Overall, “Django Unchained” is technically executed perfectly and has a rewarding adventure at its core, and can still suit as a good bit of entertainment, although a risky one.