Django Unchained

· Thursday January 24, 2013

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave freed by German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) two years before the American Civil War to help him identify three crims he’s seeking. Touched by Django’s Wagnerian love for his cruelly mistreated wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Schultz agrees to help him rescue her from slimy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). But Candie’s suspicious house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) could bring their entire plan unstuck…

Django Unchained comes with a pre-emptive backlash from Spike Lee and others. It certainly gives audiences permission to be gleeful, manipulating our reactions in a knowing, almost pantomime style and richly repaying horrifying cruelty with vengeful gore. It’s also really funny and visually stylish.

Ideologically, it’s also more coherent than Inglourious Basterds' harnesses the morally subversive spaghetti western to critique not just American slavery, but also American myth-making.

As in Italian westerns, Django Unchained depicts a moral vacuum where authority figures allow evil to flourish. Its frequent tastelessness and outright silliness puncture such common screen tropes as the taciturn gunslinger, the frontier town, Southern hospitality, the Ku Klux Klan and the Uncle Tom stereotype. But it’s fascinating how much else is mulched in, too. The jocular partnership of law-enforcement procedurals. The mentor/student relationship of martial-arts films. Training montages. Espionage infiltrations. Star-crossed romance.

Foxx’s narrowed eyes and upside-down ballsack get the job done, though Washington is little more than a damsel in distress. Waltz is great, oozing the charm that won him an Oscar, and Leonardo DiCaprio surprisingly deft and likeable in his menace. But the absolute star is Jackson, audaciously villainous not just because he, well, slavishly defends his oppressor, but also in the ease with which he switches between “yessuh” minstrel mode and chilly self-possession.