‘Django Unchained,’ Tarantino’s manic, masterful mashup of cinematic and very real brutality

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'Django Unchained' is out now. (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)
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American history—recent and less so, burnished and inglorious—is having a notable season at the movies.

It was beautifully backlit and exquisitely argued in Lincoln; tersely annotated and faithfully reenacted in Zero Dark Thirty; and now, with Django Unchained, American history gets hand-cranked through Quentin Tarantino’s imagination, which is to say through a mirrored palace of movie cameras, projectors, eyeballs, and screens, each one aimed askew and operating at full tilt. It may never walk the same way again.

Raucous and troubling, witty and vicious, irreverent and unmistakably serious, among other things Django, the story of a slave, a benefactor, and their rescue mission to the goddamned-est plantation in the land, is Tarantino’s most fearless—and occasionally reckless—tonal experiment. Not content to marry the spaghetti western and the blaxploitation flick, he breeds their offspring and sets it loose in a grindhouse version of the pre-Civil War South.

Despite its baggy imperfections, the resulting movie has one of the quicker draws you’re likely to see this or any other year. It dropped my jaw so often that I soon stopped picking it up. Few things, it turns out, are as shocking as a director who can baffle the line between humor and horror, especially with a subject as powerfully charged as this one. Where other movie histories might seek to teach, rewrite, or gild the stories of our collective past, Tarantino prefers to demonstrate how the movies can help us detonate history’s legacies, hang them high, even make them dance like Bellagio fountains of bodies and blood.

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As with the superior (and incomparable) Inglourious Basterds, here history is not a stately beast led by the muzzle to water but a wild buck ride to the death. Django begins “somewhere in Texas” in 1858, when a dentist-turned-bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in electrifyingly chatty, magnanimous form) crosses paths with Django (Jamie Foxx, a subtle but solid presence), a slave with information Schultz needs to locate his next bounties, a trio of migrant plantation hands known as the Brittle brothers.

Schultz, a capelet-clad Teuton in a strange land, extends manners you could eat off in better English than that spoken by most of the Americans he meets. His morality is as tidy, and has a ruthless bureaucratic edge: he claims the men he hunts have invited his lethal attentions, but is the only white man shown to despise slavery and its proponents. After playing a bad German in Basterds, Waltz is the proverbial good one here, yet still an exterminator, a helpless showman, and obsessed with paperwork. He just may be Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Names are of great importance to Schultz and to Django, whose title character (the name nicked from Sergio Corbucci’s 1960s spaghetti westerns) takes no aliases despite the different roles he and Schultz devise and play on their various missions. Schultz learns about Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) during a pause for the night in the desert and is deeply moved. Broomhilda—named by her German mistress and fluent in the language, of all impossibly civilized things—was separated from Django when the pair attempted an escape. Schultz, touched by the story, recounts the German (and Norse) legend of Broomhilda and Siegfried, where the hero braved a ring of fire to rescue his beloved from a mountaintop.

The scene’s folktale flavor is heightened by the twangy, desert campfire setting: the pair bed down among a cluster of rocks that are probably real but may well be made of brushed Styrofoam. Location shoots in California, Wyoming, and Louisiana add an atmosphere not to be confused with realism; for every panorama of the Tetons or a menacing plantation’s establishing shot there is a whiff of the old backlot in the form of flat lighting, whip pans (complete with whip-pan sound), or a reliance on Wes Andersonian, wittily arranged group shots. Where Django’s white folks die like cartoon characters, its black characters are violated in the grimmest, most devastatingly explicit and intimate terms. Even in this neo-mythological world, some things are too awful not to be real.

Bound to help Schultz and then bound by his offer of assistance in finding Broomhilda, Django is transformed several times, appearing as a valet in a Blue-Boy get-up and then a black slaver, a role he accepts reluctantly but with jarring commitment. A mischievous and literate schemer, Schultz coaches Django through his character assignments, and the notion of play-acting lends artifice to an already outrageously heightened atmosphere.

That atmosphere’s insulating layers and humming, high-wire wavelengths—perhaps never more dense and boldly interwoven than when a plantation owner played by Don Johnson and his would-be lynch mob of Klansmen bicker over the utility of white hoods on horseback—cannot save us from the horrors of Candyland. Having tracked Broomhilda to an estate owned by a deviant boy-prince named Calvin Candie (a magnetic Leonardo DiCaprio), Shultz devises a plan to extract Django’s wife that involves pretending to buy one of Candie’s Mandingo fighters. They too are performers with stage names, but a protracted fireside fight to the death makes the stakes repulsively clear.

DiCaprio’s awful, invigorating appearance, almost halfway through the film, follows a McCabe and Mrs. Miller-ish Wyoming interlude. Django maintains its expansive, unhurried pace at Candyland, but if the effect is uneven it’s never plodding. When he is not traumatizing you with the sight and sound of men being broken down like roast chickens, in this ultimate setting Tarantino pulls off set-piece blends of provocation, fascinating performances, and abject silliness. Like tossing hip-hop into a Morricone-heavy score, the effect is irresistibly wrong and frequently wicked.

Central to these complex delights is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s pseudo-paternal aide-de-camp. Looking like a French bulldog with his white brows and skull-hugging bandeau of hair, Jackson plays Stephen as Django’s shadow villain. And indeed, as our heroes’ plan unravels over the course of an agonizing dinner, and vengeance is dispatched in fits and mordant floods, Django reserves a special place for the black man at Candie’s side.

In that Dirty Harry-inflected showdown, Django and Stephen aim at each other the word deployed with discomfiting abandon throughout Django Unchained. Only bullets fly more freely. The United States took to both weapons like few other countries, and if their ubiquity in this potent revision of a very real and implacable stain on American history is difficult to defend, perhaps it is meant to be. We can be more certain that movie history will have sorted out the damage before the national wounds so improbably and hauntingly depicted here have begun to heal.