The worst moment of Quentin Tarantino's film career came in his best film. It was when, in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino cast himself as a some sort of mid-level crime-world figure who chastises a Jheri-curled Samuel L. Jackson, whose professional hitman was trying to dispose of a body: "Does this look like dead n**ger storage?" Tarantino asks.
Tarantino's new spaghetti-western/blaxploitation-mashup revenge fantasy Django Unchained uses that racial pejorative perhaps more rampantly than any mainstream American film, but this time the usage comes with more deliberate and arguably righteous intent — as a historically accurate signifier of ignorance and brutishness.
Django Unchained is something of a spiritual/thematic sequel to Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, which imagined an alternate history where Jews hunt Nazi scalps and take out Adolf Hitler. I didn't have a problem with Tarantino's irreverent approach to the provocative material or his embrace of violent retribution there, and I don't here. But I did have modest issues with Basterds on pure filmmaking grounds, and I have more such qualms with Django.
Basterds breakout star Christoph Waltz is Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter in the American South and West in the years just before the Civil War. In an opening set piece, Schultz accosts two slave traders in the woods and "acquires" one of their property, Django (Jamie Foxx), whom he wants to use to identify three wanted men who had been overseers on the plantation where Django and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), had been captive.
"For the time being, I'm going to make this slavery malarky work to my benefit," Schultz tells Django, who agrees to partner with him for a cut of the bounties before being officially set free. "Killing white people for money? What's not to like?" Django later explains.
Waltz and Foxx make for an enjoyable buddy team, their early, episodic exploits peaking when Django, posing as Schultz' freed-man valet, takes a whip to a plantation overseer in front of a group of slaves. These journeys culminate in a trip to Mississippi, where Schultz and Django have hatched a plan to rescue Broomhilda from servitude on the plantation owned by "Mandingo-fighting" enthusiast Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and run, in part, by his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, fully committed).
In a film culture that still generally hails a monstrosity like Gone With the Wind as an unambiguous classic, Django Unchained turns plantation owners and overseers and night riders into lazy brutes worthy of scorn and ridicule (especially in an extended comic bit partly derived from Blazing Saddles) without shortchanging their danger. DiCaprio's Calvin Candie might be a deliciously villainous Colonel Reb caricature, but slaveholders deserve no better, and Tarantino digs beneath his cartoon veneer in the uncomfortable depiction of how Candie uses his slaves for sport fighting — and how he treats them when they refuse to fight.
But Tarantino's deeper concern for grindhouse homage than historical corrective gets the best of him in the end. Django's style — quick zooms, extreme close-ups, expectedly unexpected music cues — is rampant, but individual scenes and sequences generally lack the snap of even Inglourious Basterds, much less Tarantino's best work. While his concept and casting are deeply intriguing, Tarantino's actual direction has perhaps never been this limp. And the last, listlessly bloody half hour of this 165-minute opus is a chore. Early in the film, Tarantino finds a perfect image of poetic irreverence when a dead overseer's blood splatters red on a field of white cotton. In the end, however, he lacks the maturity to maintain a tone that pointed or nervy.
Opening Tuesday, December 25th