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Christmas Day is an odd release date for a film as bloody and violent as Django Unchained. But for those not put off by Quentin Tarantino’s body count, it’s a Red Rider BB Gun. That is to say, it’s the best present under the tree. (And by the way, the very second credit at the end of them film was ASPCA’s guarantee that no horses were harmed in the filming. Take that, Hobbit!)

Not a Western, a Southern

King and Django collect bounties for a winter before setting off for Mississippi
King and Django collect bounties for a winter before setting off for Mississippi

Writer/Director Tarantino is in full nostalgia mode. The opening titles feature a forty-year-old Columbia logo, and bold red letters that are vintage ’60s. A soulful waltz of a theme song also recalls the ’60s and ’70s. A song from Ennio Morricone and fast zooms into scenes of slaves marching through a rocky desert make it look like an opening to a spaghetti western... but in this case it’s not a western, but a “southern.”

The film opens in the American West (or is it the South?) in 1858, “2 years before the Civil War” (sic), as traveling German dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) comes across a chained pack of slaves and their captors. Schultz buys one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), and offers him his freedom in exchange for his help collecting a bounty on the Brittle brothers. They travel on — leaving one of the captors dead and the other doomed.

The opening scene gives audiences fair warning. This movie is set during slavery. The institution is presented as ugly and violent, and, this being a Tarantino film, the revenge against slavers is just as violent. Django Unchained is unforgiving to those involved in slavery, even those who are “just following orders.”

Schultz and Django

As a foreigner, Schultz gets a pass. As a bounty hunter (“like slavery, it’s a flesh-for-cash business”), he is an agent for justice. He acknowledges that buying Django makes him complicit in what he calls “this slavery malarkey.” “Nevertheless I feel guilty,” he says. Waltz sounds like Werner Herzog, with his overenunciated, educated German accent. He can seem oblivious to American Southerners, yet he always turns out to be in remarkable control. It’s a wonderful and magnetic performance from Waltz whose breakout role was in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

As they travel, they talk. Schultz learns Django has a wife on a plantation in Mississippi. Schultz is giddy that her name is Broomhilda and she speaks German (thanks to a German mistress). They agree to collect bounties over the winter, then travel to Mississippi together next spring in hopes of buying or freeing “Hildy” (Kerry Washington). They will have to get her out of the hands of one Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who likes to stage fights to the death (“mandingo fights”, after a 1975 eploitation film) between his slaves and the slaves of other bored southerners.

Measuring “Great”

Filmmakers I know have said the definition of a great film is “no bad scenes and 3 great scenes.” By that measure, Django Unchained is a great film. There are at least three great scenes. The opening scene is memorable for the flair with which we meet Waltz’s character (his horse Fritz bows every time he is introduced). The very next scene sees Schultz kill a lawman in cold blood. His subsequent calm conversation with Django in the saloon of an all-white Texas town is nervewracking as we wait for the angry lynch mob to form.

The night raid by a group of white supremacists provides comic relief (!) with a surprising cameo from a young comic actor. Later Mr. Candie toys with Schultz and Django, as only a Tarantino villain can, using a skull to illustrate his knowledge of phrenology. I’m not in to bloodbaths, but if you are, there is a climactic shootout that really sends the movie out with a bang.

Even the traveling montages count as “good scenes” because of Tarantino’s impeccable use of period music. “I’ve Got a Name” subtly reminds audiences of Roots, while placing the film stylistically in the ’60s/’70s that so inspired Tarantino. Later, Rick Ross’s 100 Black Coffins brings a note of modern cool hip-hop to Morricone-style western music.

And OMG! SLJ! Fate Itself must have taken perverse pleasure in seeing ultimate badass Samuel L. Jackson cast as most sycophantic house negro ever put on film.

Quentin Tarantino was a connoisseur of exploitation films before he became a director of them. I admit my specialty lies elsewhere, but insofar as I can tell, Django Unchained is a very successful exploitation film made by a smart and talented auteur. The more of Tarantino’s work I see, the better I like it all.

P.S. — Conspiracy Theories

Earlier this year I was intrigued to read a theory on Cracked that all of Tarantino’s films exist in their own separate universe.

So when my wife pointed out that the Civil War didn’t actually start until 1861, and that the title card was wrong, (“1858, 2 years before the Civil War”), I immediately started playing the conspiracy-theory game. After all, in Tarantino’s universe, the U.S. killed Hitler in a movie theater. Maybe the Civil War couldn’t wait for South Carolinians to fire on Fort Sumter. In fact, maybe Schultz and Django’s revenge on Mr. Candie inspired the rebellion. Only Quentin Tarantino knows for sure.

Once the idea was in my head, I started thinking about which other scenes that might connect with other Tarantino films. The only one I’ll mention here is a scene in which Django was threatened with castration and was pointedly not. That leaves him intact to start a line with Hildy that may turn up later in other Tarantino films. Perhaps a more serious Tarantino fan will make some more connections for us in the comments section.