Lately for Quentin Tarantino, it’s all about scar tissue. Death Proof introduced Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, a mangled mound of battered flesh, a movie-made maniac that remains the most thoroughly Tarantino-y Tarantino character this side of Christian Slater’s geeky psychopath in True Romance. Then Inglourious Basterds, his masterpiece, closed on Brad Pitt’s score-settling WWII buccaneer (his own neck ringed with a mysterious rope burn) slicing a swastika into Chistoph Waltz’s scalp in an effort to permanently blemish the defecting Nazi. Django Unchained revisits the director’s apparent interest in bodily marking with a vengeance. Early in the film, Tarantino makes a spectacle of his titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) casting off a wooly shawl, framing the reveal of his tanned backside with all the slowed-down triumphalism of a superhero snapping on a trademarked utility belt. But here, there’s nothing so clean or aestheticized as a swastika or a reified badass-issue scar running the length of Rusell’s craggy face. The crisscrossing scabs covering Django’s back can’t be so easily decrypted, their meaning tangled up in Tarantino’s knotty mess of genre revivalism and post-post-racial historical revisionism.
Where Inglourious Basterds’s well-ordered forehead engraving reflected something of the film’s tidy Swiss-watch precision and its straightforward satisfaction of violence answered with more violence, the network of whip welts marking the back of Tarantino’s latest hero betrays a corresponding messiness. As much as Django Unchained feels in places spiritually of a piece with its revenge-fantasy predecessor (both indulge payback against institutionalized baddies whose punishment seemingly can’t be too severe), its mounting tides of retribution and consequent historical correctives feel confused. Maybe it’s a matter of necessity. As an American film dealing with the fundamental disfigurement on the American consciousness (i.e., slavery), and lacking an established canon of slavesploitation cinema to draw from, Django Unchained can’t be as orderly as Tarantino’s riffs on Dirty Dozen-style Nazi-squashing narratives. Then again, rumblings of the director shaving the film down from a rumored three-plus-hour running time seems a more plausible explanation for the film’s bagginess than willful ideological incoherence.
Django Unchained proceeds promisingly enough. Opening in a gloomy Texan thicket in the twilight of the Civil War, it has Waltz reprise his grandiloquent peacock shtick from Inglourious Basterds as German dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, who unshackles Django from a pair of Texas slavers, buys his freedom, and enlists him to help track and kill the notorious Brittle brothers. In exchange, Schultz will assist Django in buying his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), back from the madly enchanting plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The well-cultured Shultz makes his distaste for slavery well-known, offering up what might as well be the film’s thesis statement, spring-loaded with a response for anyone skeptical of Tarantino’s business reworking the lived reality of slavery into high-minded pulp. “I’m going to make this slavery malarkey work to my advantage,” says Shultz, sipping a beer with his indentured man-at-hand. “Still, having said that, I feel guilty.”
To Tarantino’s credit, he almost escapes Django Unchained guilt-free. The film’s movement from backwoods Texas to the Francophilic Candie’s Versailles-scaled Mississippi estate attends to the twinned brutality of the psychology of slavery (here, as in Inglourious Basterds, the discourse of domination is a mighty tormentor) and slavery itself (in flashbacks to thrashing scenes and a saloon “mandingo fight” loaded with non-titillating violence). Even the sidekick rapport between Django and Schultz is sufficiently complicated by the so-called freeman’s contracted status, entitled to only a third of the loot (a diminished fraction reflecting, perhaps, the Three-Fifths Compromise that downgraded the personhood of blacks in Southern states). And so a pall of white-man’s-burden dignity taints their partnership. When Schultz’s cultivated façade cracks, it’s only under the pressure of Candie’s more brazenly barbarous dandy, with Tarantino cleverly staging the good doctor’s self-annihilating breakdown to the strains of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
In places, certain of Tarantino’s impulses undermine this rollicking intelligence. While a scene of Klansmen (led by Don Johnson) debating the practicality of their pillowcase masks is almost Seinfeldian in its prodding of procedural banality, working to cleverly satirize the inflated seriousness of the Podunk posse, it feels a bit tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Likewise, the director’s tendency to employ title cards, mid-film credits scrawls, varyingly degraded film stocks, and other B-movie arcana feels a bit old hat, contributing little beyond that veneer of the Tarantinoesque. But it’s in the suspicious final act, in which our hero returns to Candie’s plantation after a first failed attempt at freeing his beloved wife, that Django Unchained most loses its footing, even while managing to stumble across its liveliest idea.
As the film works toward its gory crescendo, some of the problems roiling beneath its surface glob up at its surface. A generous reckoning of Django Unchained’s final scenes—which include the director himself as an Afrikaner slave hauler, the only character in the film to not use the N-word, which should drive Spike Lee suitably insane—may suggest that the deeply repressed historical trauma at the film’s center is exploding in a requisite bloodbath, as if Tarantino has unblocked the psychic constipation surrounding slavery to let loose a ghastly flow of splatter and retribution. But again, the more likely explanation is that, simply, at some point a Tarantino movie must happen, and Django Unchained must satisfy the audience’s ability to delay their own gory gratification and reward two hours worth of their freeman champion’s pistol-ready seething.
Problem is, even by its own fabulist standards, Django Unchained’s finale is troublingly cartoony. Foxx spends too much of the film barely registering, his character reduced to a collection of furtive glances and one-liners as he plays second fiddle to Waltz’s high-flown fop. When given the chance to bring the title character into his own, Tarantino errs toward protean tough-guy caricature, his film sinking from clever analyses of the trauma of slavery to a bloody Blaxploitation monomyth modeled on nothing less than the Nibelungenlied. Where Django Unchained seemed prepped and ready to one-up Inglourious Basterds’s eye-for-an-eye approach to historical reprisal, it becomes another incident of using the master’s tools to literally dismantle the master’s house.
While the rush toward a conventional climax is confusing, and more than a little disappointing, there’s an undeniable pleasure that emerges in seeing Tarantino juggle the dynamite of his ideas, even when they prematurely pop off in his face. Unlike the mawkish liberal pandering of this year’s other Civil War-era studio epic, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, at least Django Unchained’s post-racial leap back into America’s bifurcated past is overloaded enough be plausibly construed as complex. To this end, perhaps the most intriguing, constructive wrinkle in Tarantino’s revisionist fabric is Steven, Candie’s manservant master of the house. Played with petrifying poise by Samuel L. Jackson as a glowering Uncle Tom archetype, Steven reveals himself as the film’s true enemy, a totally indoctrinated subordinate whose slave-subject mentality is so deeply inscribed that he acts out his master’s cruelty and viciousness even in his absence. He hints at the more complicated idea that the kind of violence Django trots out with decadent aplomb in the film’s finale is learned from white folks, a notion implied with more subtlety in the relationship between Django and Schultz. In visiting the film’s most protracted, and ultimately fulfilling, scenes of vengeance against a black man, Tarantino stumbled into his most intriguing social-historical corrective: a full-on reconsideration of classically defined algebra of Civil War antagonism, a counterintuitive take on the well-worn rivalry that pitted “brother against brother.”