Django Unchained opens with a classic Tarantino ambush: a group of barefoot slaves manacled together trudges through a freezing night, herded by the slave-trading Speck brothers. A black horse approaches, ridden by Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. Schultz says that he is looking for a slave from the Carrucan plantation, and Django, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, speaks out. When Schultz attempts to pay for Django’s freedom, the Speck brothers respond by drawing their guns. Before the scene is over, one of the brothers is dead, the other is pinned under a horse, and Django is a free man.
Already there are Tarantino flourishes that twist and amplify the Western genre: Schultz’s horse is named Fritz, and he elegantly bows his head when he hears his name; the slaves are instructed to follow the North Star to “make your way to a more enlightened area of the country,” and, most notably, there are pulpy flashbacks to horrible moments from Django’s past. “Spaghetti Western flashbacks are never pretty,” Tarantino noted in a draft of the script. “It’s usually the time in the film when the lead character thinks back to the most painful memory inflicted on him by evil characters.” As the plot unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that Schultz and Django are on parallel missions: The freed slave is looking for his lost wife, and Schultz is hunting down a trio of criminals. They are both out for Tarantino-style justice, and the stage has been set.
Tarantino’s early movies existed in a fabricated pop landscape full of movie archetypes he had reinvented and reshaped. Films like the 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction took stock cinematic characters—the gangster, the thief, the trophy wife—and pushed them beyond their traditional boundaries. Instead of talking manly talk, as they typically would in a gangster film, in Pulp Fiction the thugs discuss the subtleties of foreign fast food and the pleasures of foot massages. But with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino grafted his fictional perspective upon reality for the first time: He set the movie in WWII and had the audacity to rewrite history. In his version, Hitler is assassinated at a film premiere.
That boldness, combined with Tarantino’s gift for violent set pieces matched with quirky, often humorous dialogue, is all the more stunning in Django Unchained. The movie takes place in the slavery-ridden, racially charged South, during the most painful and vivid chapter in American history, and the atrocities are rampant. At one point in the story, Broomhilda, Django’s wife, is whipped and imprisoned in a box. “Am I nervous about Django?” Tarantino asked. “No. But it is a difficult movie. I am putting the audience smack-dab into a very ugly America, and that can be rough and brutal—especially for older black folks—to watch.” He paused. “But I’m not afraid that people will judge me. Is it pleasant to be misunderstood? No. The beginning of the run is the most controversial time. The controversy will go away in six months, and then the movie will be the movie.”