If you had any illusions about the historical accuracy of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Denmark Unchained, they were shattered in the opening scene. The sun is rising over Charleston Harbor. The sky is reddish, and the water is too. The Battery can be seen in the distance. Time quickly passes. The pink clouds move away and turn fluffy white. It’s afternoon now, but the sea remains red from blood.
The movie stars Jamie Foxx as Denmark Vesey, Kerry Washington as his wife, and Leonardo DiCaprio as a vicious slave master who scores a much-anticipated date with karma. While the chemistry is there between the actors, the performances are often overshadowed by the over-the-top bloodshed and the film’s picturesque setting.
Charleston herself plays a significant role.
Consider this money shot at the film’s climax (as Radiohead’s “You Do It to Yourself” eerily plays in the background): A slow-moving panorama of an Antebellum South of Broad, each rooftop splayed with stretched-out human skin — white skin, slave master skin — drying in the sun. Instead of Spanish moss hanging from the canopies of downtown’s live oaks, it’s dripping entrails. A close up: The body of known slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey (DiCaprio) hangs high above the street, impaled by a church steeple, his lungs ripped out through his split-open back like a pair of bloody wings. The slave master gurgles out his last breath: “Dennnnnnnmmmaaaark.”
Set among the bucolic plantations of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, Tarantino’s revenge fantasy reportedly required 1.6 million tons of hogs’ blood. You can taste the iron on your tongue.
The first act of the film’s plot is straightforward. Sold as a child in the late 1700s to a slave captain from Bermuda, Denmark Vesey sails around the world with his master (SPOILER: he takes his master’s surname, then he takes his life) until finally settling in Charleston. In the Holy City, he wins several hundred dollars in a street lottery and uses it to buy his freedom, but he can’t purchase the freedom of his wife (Washington) and children. Once freed, Vesey doesn’t head to the abolitionist states, but instead stays in Charleston where he quietly organizes a successful slave rebellion that takes place on July 14, 1822.
Tarantino doesn’t linger on the complications of being a freedman in South Carolina, especially one whose family members remain enslaved. This isn’t Twelve Years a Slave. Rather, the director goes straight for the gore. For instance, we don’t see much of the actual organizing we know took place after dark in plantation slave cabins, in hushed conversations at the auction block and market, and in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Those scenes, however, might have been left on the cutting room floor of a movie that already lasts four hours and features a score that samples frequently from the likes of Murder City Devils and The Icarus Line. Viewers, therefore, are left to imagine how Denmark Vesey convinces more than 300 slaves to revolt. But such thoughts are quickly brushed aside by the dazzling camerawork of the film’s epic battle scenes on which the director chooses to focus much of his brilliance.
Some of the more memorable ones include closeups of slaves, now free of their shackles, finding creative ways to end the lives of their oppressors. You won’t easily forget the image of a bullwhip soaked in lamp oil and set ablaze, ripping into the flesh of one particularly nasty field overseer in the middle of Broad Street. Fire spits from between his shoulder blades, cauterizing his wounds and re-opening them with each lash. Similarly brutal shots include a plantation owner slowly drawn and quartered in Marion Square, much amateur dentistry with rusty farm equipment, and a two-man saw used aplenty in impossible ways.
The movie ends how it began, with a slow overhead panorama of the wrath Vesey and his rebellion have rained down on the white elite of Charleston for their sin of slavery. The soundtrack is “Big Riff” by Cave In. As DiCaprio’s last words bubble from his lips atop the church steeple, the camera follows blood droplets tumbling like coins, down, down, to where Denmark Vesey is kneeling in the street. They dribble onto the former slave’s hands, and he washes them in his onetime master’s blood. Stephen Brodsky sings to fade out: “You’re another coat of red in hell.”