Wow, what an imagination, that Quentin Tarantino has! His new movie “Django Unchained” is set someplace – another planet, I'm guessing – where a whole group of people are treated cruelly just because of the color of their skin. They are bought and sold like property, torn apart from their loved ones, forced to do humiliating or dangerous acts for the amusement of others and the mere appearance of one of them in, say, a public place can cause men to cuss and women to clutch their pearls.
Okay, forgive me if I seem flippant about America's original sin, the institution of slavery. But if “Django Unchained,” a violent, whirling fantasia into our dark past, does nothing else it ought to rattle some complacent audience members a bit and get them to reflect on history. That it does so with, by and large, an entertaining and energetic bit of shoot 'em up vengeance is hardly a bad thing, either.
The film opens with a classic tense Tarantino talk. Christoph Waltz approaches two slavers dragging a half-dozen new acquisitions through the Texas night. He introduces himself as a dentist named King Schultz (yes, that's Dr. King, if you want to read it that way) but really he's a bounty hunter. He knows that one of the slaves, Jamie Foxx's Django, will be able to recognize the three criminal brothers he's looking for. The slavers, whose vocabulary is dwarfed by the German-native Schultz, don't want to make a deal, so that's where the ass-kicking comes in.
Schultz is a superhero – silver-tongued and a dead shot, a killer with a code. He needs Django, and while he doesn't want the taint of slavery on him, for now he realizes it is simply easier to own him. “I feel guilty,” he shrugs, and it's a laugh line that lights up an audience of conflicted, confused 21st century viewers. So for now, he's got Django on his team.
At first, Foxx's Django isn't very charismatic. He's awakening from the nightmare of slavery and untrusting of the crazy German who kills people for a living. In time, though, he recognizes that a partnership is the best way for him to find and free his lost wife, plus he gets to shoot white people along the way. By the end, the torch of badassery is passed to him and he raises it with authenticity.
Much like “Inglorious Basterds” it is hard, at first, to sniff out where the main story of “Django Unchained” lies. In time we'll see there's a showdown coming between Schultz and evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and between Django and the whole f**king world.
There's plenty of violence in this film. A slave is ripped apart by dogs, people are shot in the groin on more than one occasion and then there's DiCaprio's savage, gladiatorial “Mandingo fighting” that our heroes feign business interest in as a ruse to enter DiCaprio's trust. I'll admit to ignorance and say I never knew – or sublimated the knowledge of– an underground circuit of slaves forced to fight to the death. Hell, perhaps Tarantino is overstating it, but knowing the brutality of men, I'm sure it is true. (The film has a few implications concerning a slave rape trade, too, that is equally nauseating.) The fighting in “Django” mirrors the Russian roulette in “The Deer Hunter” - a violent, visual motif meant to leave you quaking.
“Django Unchained” is a long movie, and unfortunately only some of the verbal sparring is as tense and clever as in “Basterds” (or, dare I admit it, “Death Proof.”) This film doesn't have quite the pop and polish we expect from Tarantino, and I can't help but wonder if the absence of the late Sally Menke, Tarantino's longtime editor, is the problem. I hope we don't have a pre- and post-Sally Tarantino, but right now the evidence points in this direction. There are still plenty of sequences that sizzle, there's still the ineffable timing with music, but there are also a few points where you might reflect and think, “hey, has anything actually happened in the last five minutes?” There are a few scenes that, for lack of a better word, are far too normal for the rest of this stylized picture.
“Django Unchained” is a great discussion piece, but I'm not sure it is a great film. Enjoyable in a cathartic sense, absolutely, and perhaps even important considering our amnesiac society. I certainly recommend it, despite its loose and disheveled appearances.