When we think of Quentin Tarantino we think of genres and the way he melds them together, often directly referencing (if not openly ripping off) his favorite films, into oddly sincere pastiches. Yet in his last couple of movies, Q.T., master imitator, has gone and become a kind of Avenging Angel.
Inglorious Basterds was a gorgeously recreated fantasyland set during WWII that cast a group of Jews as humorous, incessantly violent mercenaries marauding through the French-occupied countryside, “killin’ Nazis” and exacting revenge. You could sense Tarantino’s yearning to retroactively even the score, to allow a group of persecuted people to go to the movie theater and have deep-seated desires acted before them.
Django Unchained is set in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War and yearns in its own way to retroactively even the score in the name of the horrific plight of the multitude of black men and women unfairly made slaves. Here Tarantino casts a slave made free and a bounty hunter hailing from, ahem, Germany (as if to show after his last film that, yes, there were free-thinking Germans) as two violent mercenaries marauding through (to quote Margaret Mitchell) “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South” making money, sure, but also killin’ racists.
The bounty hunter is King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), masquerading as a dentist, who requires the services of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who knows the whereabouts of three wanted brothers. Schultz shoots and pays his way to acquiring Django’s freedom. The two men enter into an agreement whereby they will team up as bounty hunting equals before, in the spring, taking their act to Mississippi and an antebellum plantation called Candieland, owned by sinister Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), in a wily ruse to rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who, unfortunately, is not much beyond the damsel in more-than-normal distress and allowed to speak German only as a plot point.
Let’s he honest, Waltz is essentially reprising his role in Inglorious Basterds, but, nevertheless, it is clear Tarantino has discovered another muse. Here he creates a hilarious, delectable, deceptively complex character who bears no remorse in shooting down miscreants in cold blood for the fact he seems to be doling out vigilante justice as much as earning big bucks. He is not only put out by slavery but by everything America has to offer, made so apparent in exaggerated mannerisms (and fantastically big words) which all express an almost comedic disbelief at the moral junkyard of the deep south.
Foxx, on the other hand, spends much of the film pent-up, at first still suspicious of this King Schultz and then because he is forced to play-act upon arrival at Candieland to not reveal their true intentions. And even when he explodes into a righteous fury in the end he does not so much explode, per se, as keep his distance. He might be the least interesting character, but he might be the least interesting character by story necessity, which might unwittingly be an insult. (I cannot decide.)
DiCaprio, at last, trades in his ceaseless solemnity and has hammy fun without, smartly, ever glossing over the sadism he so clearly enjoys, even if he clearly is also under the thumb of his very own house slave Stephen (Stepin?) played by Samuel L. Jackson in what might be the film’s most complicated character even if Tarantino resists scrutinizing those complications beyond their crust.
Sprawling and overlong, Django Unchained, like with so many Tarantino films, is vingette-y, reveling in its lengthy set pieces and brilliantly coo coo dialogue and just stepping back now and again to let its actors rip. It is disappointing then that as the movie seeks to earn revenge on behalf of Django that it becomes so un-inventive (even slightly derivative of his own Kill Bill). Guns upon guns are unholstered and Candieland is inevitably transformed into a spa of blood but the set-ups and payoffs lack that certain Q.T. Twinkle. The many reversals become more important than the way he fills in the blanks around the reversals, his specialty. The momentum stalls as the artful shenanigans dwindle.
Would such artful shenanigans have been out of place in this film? It is a brutal and profane journey into one of the most sordid chapters of America’s past, a place perhaps difficult for the modern viewer to grasp and, thus, generally impossible to negotiate cinematically. What filmmaker in his or her right mind would not be frightened of offending in regards to this topic and therefore going overboard to be inoffensive?
Tarantino, whatever thoughts one may have on his talent or prodigious use of a certain word with racial connotations, etc., has never backed down from his vision and he does not back down here. Who else would dare make a big-time Christmas Day movie that mixes Blaxploitation and American slavery? He wants to show the way it was but mostly he wants to retroactively hand out just desserts.