A tableful of professional criminals discussing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Two jaded hitmen enthusiastically debating the sexual insinuations associated with a casual foot massage. A ruthlessly cunning SS officer comparing the survival instincts of the Jewish people to those of a rat — all the while puffing away on an oversized tobacco pipe. It really is the little things that make a Quentin Tarantino movie special.
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Little things and violence — pulpy, whimsical, hilarious violence.
And if you’ve seen Tarantino’s latest masterpiece “Django Unchained,” you’ll know there’s just something inexpressibly special about watching a woman fly 10 feet in the wrong direction after taking a single bullet from an old-fashioned six-shooter. Over the last two decades, it’s this quirky take on violence, almost comic book-like in its exaggeration, that has allowed the world’s most knowledgeable director to use buckets of pasty faux blood to mold a genre of his own.
A genre in which the extravagant displays of ferocity are skillfully framed by beautiful, self-referential lines of dialogue and light-hearted contexts to pay homage to the most forgotten corners of B-movie history. “Django” is an undeniable product of this genre. In so many words, it is Tarantino’s love letter to the classic Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western, featuring the same recognizable Southern setting and the same stereotypical N-word-spewing, gun-slinging Southern folk.
But there’s a catch.
The two main characters, as can be expected of any Tarantino production, are written specifically to stick out of this ostensibly well-trodden background. The first is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”), a bounty hunter hired by the national government to dispatch known criminals and sell their corpses for sizable rewards. Naturally, he’s also a German ex-dentist with perfectly manicured fingernails and a soft spot for slaves.
On a routine mission to locate and execute three ex-cons, our smooth-talking European friend needs the help of a recently sold slave to identify his three targets. Enter “D-J-A-N-G-O … the D is silent” (Jamie Foxx, “Collateral”), Tarantino’s take on those 19th-century cowboys found in early Clint Eastwood westerns. Except, of course, this cowboy is black, and represents the hand of bloody African-American revenge, much in the same way the Basterds symbolized a collective Jewish vengeance in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Django is later freed by Schultz, who helps transform him into the “fastest gun in the south,” finally agreeing to assist in locating and freeing his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, “The Last King of Scotland”).
Unlike most other Tarantino films, “Django” does not feature many strong female characters. Disappointingly, Broomhilda is really nothing more than a damsel in distress, visions of her pretty face and simple demeanor frequently appearing on screen to beckon our hero forward, towards old Mississippi’s version of hell on earth.
In this hell, the devil’s throne is occupied by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (“Inception”) as a perfect representation of vicious white bigotry, served with a side of loquacious southern hospitality. The right-hand man is the head house slave, brought to life in scene-stealing fashion by Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction”), who quickly comes to represent the mental manacles of slavery that Django has to overcome on his path to liberation.
Like in any good western, when the good meets the bad, things go boom. But it’s clear Tarantino is going for something a lot more ambitious with this film. Yes, he’s still that kid working at the video store, waxing lyrical about the movies he finds genuinely entertaining, but he’s no longer just concerned about making obscure pop references and getting that occasional knowing chuckle out of audience members.
Tarantino, now having made eight feature-length films, has grown as a writer and director. In “Django,” the scenes of vehement retribution are aplenty and all wholly satisfying. But the truly memorable ones feature a form of writing that puts on full, ugly display the saddening excuses ignorant men hid behind to justify slavery.
The scenes of Django riding desperately towards his wife, his last chance at something normal dwindling in front of him as flecks of dust ripple off the tattered rags around his shoulders, make you want to stand up and applaud. And when the credits roll, the applause comes. Finally, for once, it’s not just for the little things.