Just as I would rather write about pitiful, bewildered Gollum than describe the orc-scrimmage that was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I would rather write about Samuel L. Jackson than go on too much about Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino uses the '50s version of the Columbia Lady in his pre-titles, but Ride Lonesome was a mere 73 minutes long, while the unkempt sprawl of Django Unchained exceeds the bounds of the Western movie/slavesploitationers that Tarantino is raiding—whether low and grimy (like 1971's Goodbye Uncle Tom) or high-budget and Di Laurentiis–produced (like 1975's Mandingo).
Django Unchained sits solidly in Tarantino's comfort zone, with a combination of low-key speechifying and big payback. The mania is counterpointed with full-throated emotion. Django Unchained is so caramel-hearted that Tarantino even includes Jim Croce's atrocious "I Got a Name” to accompany the saddle-pals' ride.
Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) is a dentist-turned-gunslinger, practicing his trade at the end of the 1850s. In a freezing woods in Texas, he liberates the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), for the practical reason that the shackled man can lead him to a trio of criminals hiding on a plantation.
Django takes to the killing work with ease—"Shootin' white folks, what's not to like?” He has a mission of his own. His wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), has been sold down the river by a cruel master (Bruce Dern). She's languishing on "the fourth-biggest plantation in Mississippi,” a place known as Candyland, operated by the disgusting Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). To infiltrate the place, Django will pose as a free black slaveholder seeking to buy bare-knuckle fighting Mandingos.
Tarantino's least-acknowledged influence, Richard Pryor, might well have loved the riffs (a ride of Klan-like vigilantes ruined by a bungling seamstress) and the dirty fun of the villain's hangout, the Cleopatra Club.
Waltz's Dr. King (an odd joke, considering what the real MLK thought of violence) delivers speeches that are a handsome apology for the potential anti-Germanness of Inglourious Basterds. Schultz, practically a one-man Goethe Society, reaches for his culture as often as he reaches for his revolver.
Foxx's heavyweight glare is tempered by Django's yearning for his wife. Foxx gives a physical but neutral performance; he's a killing machine so untroubled that he rides a dancing pony.
It is, however, Samuel L. Jackson who catalyzes everything Tarantino has to say about slavery. Jackson is the second-highest grossing actor of all time by some measures. Much of what filled his wallet, he earned with "Bad Mother Fucker” parts.
Jackson is made for Candyland; as per David Thomson's phrase about Vincent Price, Jackson has "a sweet tooth”—he likes rich, even decadent parts. The result is easily guessed: Snakes on a Plane quotes when his name is mentioned. Jackson may have had more well-developed roles when he worked for Spike Lee or Kasi Lemmons. But ask not where Samuel L. Jackson would be without Quentin Tarantino, ask rather… .
Every white liberal who flinches at seeing an Uncle Ben rice box will get that sting watching Jackson as "Stephen,” the house man at Candyland. The role of "porch-negro” would be a deal breaker for most black actors, particularly in a movie that's primarily a comedy.
It's a tribute to Jackson's taste for risk-taking that he went for it. It's one thing to imagine being whipped and branded—some people do that kind of thing for fun—but what Jackson gets at is a lot dirtier, eerier and harder to countenance.
He shows us the corrosion of a man who has to pretend to be a pet, wriggling with gratitude, putting on a show of human warpage that only white people grown stupid and lazy from the slaveholder's life wouldn't suss out.
Jackson demonstrates the rage that everyone loves, with a counterbalance of implosion, as he stumps around pretending to be kindly and dotty. This is the performance of Jackson's career. If it's foolery, it's the kind of fooling that goes on in King Lear.
R; 165 min.