Django Unchained is probably the most serious film director Quentin Tarantino has ever made. That is not to say that it is a serious movie. Like any Tarantino film, it is made with too much unbridled glee to be called serious -- whatever that means (and is worth). But it is to say that it didn't live up to the billing given to it by some critics as the funniest of his works, at least to me.
Oh, it has humorous moments in spades, most of them provided by Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen. But in between those moments is a great deal of darkness and a gripping, desperate quest that concludes not so much with humor, but more with righteous badassness that is in line with his last movie, Inglourious Basterds.
Which is precisely as it should be considering that the title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter on the trail of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he was separated from when his former owner deliberately sold the couple to different buyers upon learning of their marriage.
Django's quest takes the shape of a classic Spaghetti Western in the vein of the Man With No Name trilogy, only it is set in the antebellum Deep South -- the opulent plantations of Texas and Mississippi taking the place of dusty one-room shacks at the foot of a butte. Tarantino, who often cites the director of that trilogy, Sergio Leone, as one of his biggest influences, and has turned to those films' composer Ennio Morricone on his own soundtracks, has taken to calling Django Unchained a "Southern." It's the type of concept that -- even coming out of Tarantino's mouth -- sounds borderline insane, until you see it, of course. Then, like some anachronistic bit of Dr. Frankenstein-style sorcery, it fits together so perfectly that you can't believe no one ever thought of this before. (OK, "they" kind of did -- they being the numerous pop culture influences upon which Tarantino has always drawn -- but Tarantino deserves all the credit for piecing those influences together in wildly entertaining fashion, doesn't he?)
Because this is a "Southern" with a freed slave as its principal hero, it can't exactly send Django straight off on the trail of Broomhilda like he's Josey Wales. Armed black men with a taste for vengeance didn't get to roam freely in 1858 Mississippi, even if they were freedmen. No, Django needs a friend to make it all possible and he gets one in Schultz, a German dentist who has become a bounty hunter because it pays better. Schultz purchases Django because he can help him identify the Brittle Brothers, his one-time overseers who now have their names attached to a WANTED poster in Schultz's possession.
In exchange for his help, Schultz offers Django first, his freedom, and, then, once he shows some skill both with deception and a gun, his assistance in tracking Broomhilda. Their pursuit leads the pair to the reprehensible Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the biggest slaveholders in Mississippi and also Broomhilda's current captor. DiCaprio is positively menacing as Candie, a man with so much money and such little regard for his chattel that he stages "Mandingo" fights -- battles to the death between his strongest slaves. And once he sees through the ruse with which Django and Schultz first approach him, he makes it exceptionally difficult for the pair to procure Broomhilda's freedom.
On its simplest level, the story is darned near perfect. I'm not sure Tarantino has ever done romance better than Django and Broomhilda, and the obstacles standing between Django and his bride are as worthy of contempt as you might imagine -- gradually more cruel, arrogant and, of course, racist, until you finally land on the very embodiment of those three traits in Candie.
Because this is Tarantino, and especially because he is taking slavery, America's original sin, head-on, the conversation can't stop there. I imagine that, for many people, Django Unchained will be either unsatisfactory or offensive, or, very possibly, both. But I suspect that most of those folks will either not see the film -- instead reading about his proclivity for the n-word in the script or his absurd (though not really that absurd) exaggerations of the institution of slavery just prior to the Civil War -- or will go see it with little understanding of what he is all about as a director.
What I mean by that is that it's a mistake to expect Tarantino to suddenly turn in to Ken Burns and attempt to give us a comprehensive and enlightening picture of slavery -- of the deep, permanent scar it left on this country. And it's also a mistake to expect him to ever pull his punches just because he can't (and shouldn't) provide a complete moral accounting of the worst stain on the United States' record. He remains an utterly fearless artist. Django Unchained is not Lincoln -- a fairly conventional (and excellent) three-act story masquerading as a historical record. It is, much more simply, an exploration of American slavery in Quentin Tarantino's world -- a world that resembles the real one in some ways and is nothing like it in many others.
There are many scenes in Django Unchained that set this tone, but the one that stuck with me the most involves the pact struck between Django and Schultz, in which the former is promised his freedom by the latter should he help kill the Brittle Brothers. Schultz explains that while he abhors slavery, he is unable to free Django until he collects on the bounty. This, at least as I saw it, was a subtle acknowledgement that America's greatness -- maybe even the greatness of Tarantino's latest film to a certain extent -- is built, even if it's only in a small way, on unspeakable evil. It's an evil that he then spends the next two hours and change attempting to expose in his distinct surrealist fashion.
It might not be the perfect way to take on slavery, but to that I would say that there probably isn't one. Is Lincoln's antiseptic non-approach any better? No. (And I'd argue it's actually quite a bit worse.) At least Tarantino has the stones to give it a real shot, and does it by wrapping the entire thing inside an incredibly compelling yarn with textured characters, a visually stunning backdrop and a brilliant soundtrack.
Not too bad if this is the way you go about getting serious.