There is a story within the story of Django Unchained that Quentin Tarantino intends to be his thesis.
When the former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) tells his new acquaintance, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), of his wife with a German name, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and his hope to rescue her out of slavery, Schultz recalls a German fairy tale that parallels the circumstances. In the ancient fable, a princess, also named Broomhilda, is held prisoner at the top of a volcano guarded by a dragon, but a brave hero scales the peak, slays the dragon and saves her.
Given this short anecdote, Django Unchained from the get-go appears to boast noble aspirations, namely to be romantic. But given the gluts of its director, it, alas, proves to be anything but that. While he may follow the core of such a premise, Tarantino can’t help but impose his urge for revenge and violence, not to mention self-gratification, on the film. This excess makes his new spaghetti western less about love or valor and more about the seeming glory of retribution—a Tarantino trademark that makes Django Unchained, like his entire body of work, troubling if not detrimental.
Put simply, Tarantino is notorious for taking a good thing and making it bad. In spite of the moral vacuum he creates time and again, there’s no denying the man knows how to make a movie. Grounded in film history, he mish-mashes genres and iconic shots and scenes from films past, taking a whole slew of life-giving elements and whoring them out for his own tainted visions. This misconduct plays out on a broad scale especially when it comes to the subject of revenge.
In Inglourious Basterds, for example, he explores the idea of justice, taking a “what if” approach in response to the horror of Hitler and his Holocaust, but what starts as exploration quickly transforms into exploitation, as Tarantino brushes over grace and mercy and embraces vengeance. In doing so, he revels in the very thing he sets out to hate—a doing that sums up precisely the outcome of Django Unchained and a doing that makes it that much more problematic, given how easy it is to swallow the trash.
With his new film, an undeniably entertaining picture with a delightful soundtrack, exciting performances and a slew of masterfully executed action sequences, Tarantino spins a story with the potential to portray a picture of love, heroism and justice, as its title character sets off to free his wife from the grips of a psychopathic slave owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the structure of evil, “Candieland,” over which he reigns. It also possesses the great historical opportunity to, in displaying the hell black slaves suffered in early American society, shed new light on the issue and its implications today.
Indeed, the central idea and premise of Django Unchained seem righteous enough, but, sadly, the man who brings them to life ultimately gets in the way.
The film’s finale epitomizes this problem—especially given the scene that comes before it. Before the finale, Tarantino makes a cameo (big surprise), playing an Australian cowboy, and his character literally blows up, from a dynamite explosion, on screen. While fans may eat the scene up, because it is evidently so unbelievably funny when a director shows up in one of his movies, the joke falls on Tarantino. The moment communicates the fundamental issue of Django Unchained and, well, every Tarantino film, for that matter: Tarantino.
In the finale, the veteran director has the ideal opportunity to redeem himself—particularly various glorifications and the encumbrance of bloody violence—in the name of justice, when his hero, Django, finally lands upon the opportunity to save his wife and move on. By this point, though, it’s clear the film no longer concerns itself with the Broomhilda fairy tale Tarantino intends to be the film’s thesis. On the contrary, that thesis turns out to be a mere justification and catalyst for what Tarantino truly desires—vengeance—as his hero goes from noble to vile, from the oppressed to the oppressor.
The result? A hyper-violent showdown that praises reprisal and punishment, inadvertently trivializes history—here, slavery and black experience—rather than critiquing the worst parts of it and honoring a longsuffering people.