Quentin Tarantino’s confidence as a filmmaker and in his audience is right there during the opening moments of his latest and eighth film (not counting Four Rooms). As the opening titles unfold and the appealingly corny title song booms from the soundtrack, Tarantino clearly doesn’t care how old school and goofy it is, only that his audience and dedicated fans will follow him into his latest cinematic mix-tape of the old and new. It goes without saying that we do and that, even during many of the questionable moments on hand, Tarantino knows how to put on good show and this is one of his most entertaining, if questionable films.
Jamie Foxx stars in the title role, a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter posing as a dentist (played to the hilt by Christoph Waltz). The two form an unusual alliance, killing targets by taking on different identities and generating an interracial friendship uncommon in a land where seemingly everyone is hatefully racist. After successfully working the land as cowboy guns for hire, Django and his “dentist” set off an a suicide mission: to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), who was sold to the infamous “Candyland” slave plantation and is owned by a ruthless “slaver” (played by Leonardo DiCaprio with a sick, merry twinkle in his eye).
Tarantino got away with Inglourious Basterds, his previous film in which he radically altered history and gave Adolf Hitler a spectacular death scene. It’s one thing to flip the bird to the Nazi party but here, Tarantino depicts racist imagery, language and hateful violence towards black slaves and it feels uncomfortably exploitative, even for him. I recognize that the violence and frequent racial slurs are supposed to be offensive, particularly in this context, but Tarantino overdoes it, as if he’s gleefully courting controversy.
I loved nearly everything Tarantino has directed before but the gruesome visuals here are tough to take (and yes, I loved QT’s Kill Bill series). The performances make it worthwhile, starting with Waltz’s dazzling turn, Foxx’s understated cool, DiCaprio’s unhinged embodiment of smug, unapologetic evil and Samuel L. Jackson’s brave, meaty characterization of a foul stereotype: the elderly, dutiful house slave.
How outrageous is this? One sequence features Don Johnson dressed like Colonel Sanders and overseeing a cotton farm. While the imagery stops short of depicting rape or blackface minstrel shows (a rare touch of restraint), Tarantino does show slaves being torn apart and branded. It’s too much, especially for what isn’t much more than a frivolous drive-in movie homage.
It wears out its welcome with an unnecessary, extended finale that repeats what we already knew, and this feels more like a film from Tarantino’s pal Robert Rodriguez, with its stunt casting, sick jokes and loyalty to B-movie conventions.
Yet, if you have the stomach for it and can overlook how dubious much of it is (which Tarantino is clearly counting on), it’s also a great western, visually resembling McCabe and Miss Miller. There are shoot-outs with jackhammer excitement and some quotable lines in the midst of all the racist slurs.
Filmmaker Spike Lee once publicly criticized Tarantino for overdoing it on the use of the “N-word” in his films; it seemed an unfair critique at the time but, on this film, I agree with Lee. Tarantino may have made yet another expertly crafted, gore soaked crowd pleaser, but he thinks he’s above restraint and can get away with anything. He’s wrong.
Blazing Saddles knew how to perfectly convey a despicably racist atmosphere with sharp humor, satire and honesty. Django Unchained isn’t as hip and above the hateful muck as much as it thinks.
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 141 Min.