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Six feature films into his unfailingly vitalizing filmmaking career, it’s safe to say that Quentin Tarantino has mastered a distinctive cinematic high-wire act that no other living American director seems capable (or all that interested) in replicating. In particular, the post-Jackie Brown maturation of Tarantino’s thematic ambitions and socio-political awareness seems to have engendered a paradoxical yet engrossing pattern. On the one hand, Kill Bill, Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds all function as deliriously captivating entertainments, brimming with razor-sharp dialog, grisly wish fulfillment, and giddy homages to cinematic history. On the other hand, QT’s recent films are also superbly cunning and ambiguous works of cultural criticism that tackle matters as diverse as identity, patriarchy, celebrity, violence, morality, and the role of fiction itself.
This has proven a winning formula, and if Tarantino’s new film, the blood-spattered Western Django Unchained, is any indication, it will continue to reap engaging, provocative dividends for some time. In his latest feature, the filmmaker tackles that prickliest of subjects in America, one he has mostly eschewed or fumbled in his prior work: race. The titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the Deep South ca. 1858 who has recently caught the attention of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Django, it turns out, can identify a trio of criminals that Schultz is seeking, and after almost offhandedly appropriating the enslaved man from his captors, Schultz offers Django freedom if he will simply point out the bounty hunter’s quarry. This is dispensed with by the end of the film’s first act, and thereafter Django focuses on the evolution of the relationship between the two men, on the emergence of the former slave’s almost superhuman prowess with firearms, and on the pair’s eventual mission to liberate Django’s wife Hilda (Kerry Washington) from her captivity under a foppish monster of a plantation master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino signals quite explicitly that Django Unchained is not aiming to present a historically accurate depiction of chattel slavery in the American South, but a Hero’s Journey where Django assumes the role of a dragon-slaying, maiden-rescuing Siegfried. It’s not Roots, but Wagner through the lens of Sergio Leone with a splash of James Brown funk. However, Django is not solely a fantasy of antebellum black vengeance—although it is that, delivered with all the white-hot mayhem and relentless quips one expects from Tarantino. However, just as Basterds is deeper than its cathartic veneer of Jewish-on-Nazi retribution might suggest, Django calls attention to a diverse array of enduring racial wrinkles in the American cultural fabric. These range from white minimization of the black experience; to the lazy, sinister character of race-based tropes in fiction; to contemporary denial of the pseudoscientific justifications for American slavery. It is this compulsion for slyly prodding at American complacencies while also offering guilty pleasures with a virtuoso’s flourish that makes Tarantino such a vital and inimitable filmmaker.