“Django Unchained” is a lot of things, but it sure ain’t boring. Whether it adds up to a whole lot will be open for debate. But regardless of the over-the-top satiric nature of the narrative, writer/director Quentin Tarantino may have managed to deliver one of the most unflinchingly realistic depictions of slavery in the Old South to ever grace the screen. QT’s vision is ugly and twisted and filled with all kinds of evil. And he gets away with his awful depictions under the guise of social commentary filtered through an expletive filled comic wit. The world of “Django Unchained” is alien to be sure, but hidden therein are wicked truths to be stripped away and considered.
The high-concept idea was to take a 1960s spaghetti western entitled “Django” and transform it into something fresh and hip similar to what Tarantino did with “Inglorious Basterds.” To do that, Django is made a slave (played by Jamie Foxx) in the Old South. And once he is rescued from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (Christopher Waltz), Django learns the bounty hunting trade in order to hopefully locate and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Along the way, Django and Shultz become friends and business partners. But while they have seen a fair amount of evil in their time, nothing will prepare them for Candyland, a Mississippi plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio).
While the visuals Tarantino conjures up here are clearly romanticized and fantastical, there are scenes of such craven brutality that it is impossible to dismiss everything as comic book non-sense. There are terrific set-pieces and sequences slapped along-side amateur hour b-movie exploitative elements. It is an uneven mix and doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion. And at 2 hours and 45 minutes, “Django Unchained” proves to be 45 minutes too long, only managing to end when it runs out of characters to kill and things to blow up.
Much has been written already about the gratuitous use of the “n” word in “Django Unchained” and the criticism is largely unfounded. The odd adult hipster dialogue is part of the QT universe and anyone who dares to see one of his movies knows what they’re in for. And after a brief period of adjustment, the rhythm of the speech patterns are lyrical and artistic–the “n” word and its derivations are part of the recurring refrain, a hook or a chorus. At one point, Tarantino jettisons all attempts to stay within the western period genre and dumps rap music into the score. He’s clearly having fun with “Dejango Unchained” and for the most part so is the viewer. But just when things settle down and you begin to enjoy yourself, Tarantino hammers you with some twisted violence serving to remind you that life in the Old South was hard and dangerous.
Tarantino fills his canvas with bounty hunting, Klu Klux Klan raids, plantations, and Mandingo fighting. That Mandingo fighting will stick with you. Dicaprio’s Calvin Candie is as repellent as anything Tarantino has ever created. And Candie’s right hand man is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a slave among slaves, whose weird limp hides some other dark secret. Candie is a monster of a high degree. In one chilling sequence, he explains why the black man is genetically inferior to the white man and his use of visuals is sick and twisted. You may want to look away, but I doubt you will–QT will have his hold on you.
And as good as so much of this film is, I was ultimately disappointed with how “Django Unchained” ended. It was as though Tarantino had run out of great ideas and chose to fall back on base and unimaginative ones. Even though I don’t want to admit it, the film is ultimately a dressed up spaghetti western destined to follow formula. But what Tarantino does is give us some unforgettable sequences and set-pieces within the confines of the familiar.