There's a wordless sequence in Quentin Tarantino's anti-bigotry neo-Spaghetti Western exploitation comedy Django Unchained in which Jamie Foxx, as recently freed slave Django, hitches up his horse and, along with the man who bought him his freedom — Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz — sets off on an elegiac amble through a snowy western landscape. It's one of the most gorgeous sequences of any film this year, a reverie borrowed, with love, from rare snowscape Westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Sergio Corbucci's 1968 The Great Silence.
The beauty of that scene may get lost amid the debate of how many times the n-word is used in Tarantino's script. But it shouldn't. Django Unchained is by turns exhilarating, hilarious, horrifying and poetic. In other words, it's a picture that's full of everything, and if it takes significant liberties with history (as Inglorious Basterds so gleefully did), it also faces certain historical truths head-on. And the harsh reality is that a word that's never used today in polite company was, in 1858, used by all manner of people who fancied themselves polite.
One of those people is a central character in Django Unchained, a gentleman plantation owner (and thus slave owner) named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose syrupy civility barely disguises his cruel streak. Candie, it turns out, owns the woman who is Django's wife, a German-speaking beauty named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). (You were warned that Django Unchained is, among many other things, a comedy.) King Schultz is a bounty hunter who originally bought — in a manner of speaking — Django's freedom to enlist his help in tracking down certain criminals. But as the two work together, their bond deepens, and he agrees to help Django free Broomhilda from Candie's clutches.
As with most Tarantino movies, the plot mechanics are merely things on which to hang the dialogue and action, like the sturdy branches of a Christmas tree. Django Unchained doesn't skimp in either of those areas. The banter between King Schultz and Django is relaxed and jovial, but there's an acid edge to it, too — both of these men know they're fighting a losing battle, though the picture's shootout finale is triumphant in its own way. Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson map out the action — and the violence — with conscientious clarity; when there's a man down, you always have at least some sense of where the bullet came from.
Some of the violence in Django Unchained is raw and brutal, as dictated by the exploitation-movie conventions Tarantino is riffing on here. But he's acutely sensitive about what he chooses to show: When a slave for whom Candie has no use is torn apart by dogs, the barbarity takes place off-camera. That doesn't diminish the horror of the moment; if anything, it casts it in sharper relief.
Just what is Tarantino trying to prove with Django Unchained? His aim, it seems, is to both provoke and delight — he's firing on all cylinders here. The picture is a rousing good time, but there are strong threads of anger in it too. Like the Spaghetti Westerns and '70s blaxploitation pictures from which it takes its cues, it's a form of kicking and screaming against social injustice. (The title, and Foxx's character name, is a mini tribute to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 vengeance spectacle Django, starring Franco Nero, who has a small cameo here.)
The idea isn't just "slavery was bad." The overarching point is that old ideas of inferiority linger despite the fact that we all think we know better. When Django and King Schultz (who might also be called Dr. King, if you're looking for symbolism) ride up together to any house, or into any town, onlookers — both black and white — view Django with suspicion. What, they want to know, is a black man doing riding a horse?
Most malicious of all is Stephen, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, who has made his life extremely comfortable by positioning himself as Candie's favored servant. Jackson's performance is overly cartoonish, even in the context of a somewhat cartoonish movie, but the idea behind it — that racial resentments aren't always rendered solely in black and white — is pointed and precise.
But Django Unchained isn't a screed. There's too much joy in it for that, and both Foxx and Waltz revel in their roles. Waltz is superb here; his Schultz is gloriously understated in the way he deflects the amorality around him, and his clipped diction is itself a brilliant type of comic timing. And Foxx is terrific precisely because he's so unflashy; his Django is a man who can't believe the new life he's been given and doesn't take it for granted for a second. You see that more in Foxx's eyes than in any line of dialogue.
It's telling that the source music used in the movie's snowy interlude, in which Foxx and Waltz pick through those rugged, frosty mountain trails on horseback, is Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name," a song that many of us long ago left on the scrapheap of Top 40 radio. But Tarantino uses the song with pure love, devoid of irony. (One of Tarantino's strong suits is that he doesn't love things ironically.)
And in the context of a stylized adventure about a freed slave, the lines "I've got a name/And I carry it with me like my daddy did/But I'm living the dream that he kept hid" mean something beyond '70s hit-parade nostalgia. In the course of his career, Tarantino has been both praised and ridiculed for his penchant for recontextualization. At this stage of the game, he does it better than anybody. (Recommended)