Like most of his other films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained feels like a summing-up, a resuscitation of forgotten subgenres, another thick volume of The Portable Quentin Tarantino — which, given the writer-director’s penchant for lengthy movies, isn’t quite portable. But that’s okay: the time always flies, and Tarantino gives us a lot of movie for our money. Django Unchained is another historical revenge epic on the order of Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, in which the insulted and injured get bloody satisfaction; in this case, the wronged party is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave passing through antebellum Texas. Django encounters a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and the two men become partners, Django assisting Schultz on various jobs until Schultz decides to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a Mississippi plantation.
Previous Tarantino revengeploitation (Kill Bill, etc.) was set in made-up, stylized worlds, but this movie and Basterds unfold against real-life backdrops of cruelty (and deep collective shame), so Django Unchained has sparked considerable controversy. Some African-Americans take issue with a white filmmaker’s using slavery (not to mention “the n-word”) so freely in service of a popcorn movie. Others find it empowering, as their ancestors also found blaxploitation cathartic in the ’70s. I’ll just say that the movie is structured as a spaghetti-western Niebelungen, in which the dragons this Siegfried must slay are slave owners and all the hillbillies and Uncle Toms who enable them. Django’s journey brings him to Candyland, an elaborate plantation run by the noxiously self-satisfied Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanging on his master Calvin’s every casually racist word like Gollum is house negro Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who can tell straight away that Django and Schultz aren’t really there to buy “the right nigger” for mandingo fighting.
Trying to catch Broomhilda in a lie, Stephen asks her why he’s scaring her. “Because you’re scary,” she replies, and indeed he is; Jackson atones for many easy Samuel L. Jackson Auto-Pilot performances with a creepy, cobra-like menace. Tarantino has always been an actor’s director, evident here from so many people willing to drop in for tiny roles; at times the movie is an anthology of character actors from exploitation or TV. Foxx’s Django is iconic and stoic except where his beloved Broomhilda is concerned, while Waltz’s Schultz, familiar with violence up to a point, is gradually sickened by seeing firsthand the ruthless machinery of the slave economy. DiCaprio doesn’t overdo Candie’s sadism; in fact, in order to be sadistic you have to have some awareness that what you’re doing is wrong, and Candie, born into his position, sees nothing evil in it. It’s the water he’s always swum in. Someone like Stephen, who should see the evil but overlooks it out of expedience, is far more treacherous.
Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino became a born-again action director, and the many shoot-outs here are staged with over-the-top gusto, with blood spurting and misting and puddling. When we’re supposed to enjoy the brutality, we do; when we’re not (say, when Candie unleashes dogs on an escaped slave), we don’t. Tarantino’s use of violence here seems fair and organic: If you profit from human misery, your death will be a joke to energize the audience. Tarantino’s great theme, hooking into his preoccupation with revenge sagas over the last decade, has always been “Actions have consequences.” When this is applied to America’s guilty past, Django Unchained comes to feel like an act of radicalism, which connects it to Tarantino’s obvious influences here, the sardonically political spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence and the original Django).
Other than showing off the first Django (Franco Nero) in a cameo, Tarantino’s Django shares no particular plot overlap with Corbucci’s, any more than his Inglourious Basterds cribbed its narrative from Enzo Castellari’s. The soundtrack is gratifyingly eclectic and defiantly anachronistic; Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith consort uneasily with Rick Ross and Jim Croce, and somehow it all works. As always, Tarantino is like a kid playing you his favorite albums and movie clips, but as he’s gotten older, with this and Basterds, he seems to have concluded that all his passion and enthusiasm should be put to use for grindhouse-history lessons — that is, history as seen through the filter of grindhouse, not the history of grindhouse, though it’s that too. The movie takes its time and stretches its legs and lets people reveal character through monologues. It also knows when to blow people sky-high for a laugh and when to step back in revulsion when other people who don’t deserve it are butchered. The tension between the two forms of violence may be the key to the movie’s controversy, but it also makes Django Unchained the season’s most vital filmmaking, bringing all of cinema’s manipulative possibilities to bear on a cracking good tale.