I think by now we have a pretty good idea what to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. There will be eloquent vulgarity, both visual and verbal. There will be lovingly retro references to films you’ve never heard of. There will be strong performances by relative newcomers and supposed has-beens, often displaying sides of which you never thought them capable. Which is a long winded way of saying that if you like Quentin Tarantino movies, you’ll like Django Unchained.
I happen to love Quentin Tarantino (his is one of the few Blu-ray box sets I feel tempted to purchase), and so found little fault with his latest endeavor, which employs his usual devices in a revenge epic set in the pre-Civil War South. Django (Jamie Foxx) plays a slave freed at the outset by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) on the condition that he help Schultz track down his latest assignment, whom only Django can identify. Once their business is concluded, Schultz agrees to help Django free his wife, currently owned by the vicious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who runs a plantation called, of course, Candie Land.
Mayhem and brutality ensue, and it should come as no surprise that Tarantino is fairly graphic (though, interestingly, not as graphic as he could be) about the treatment of black men and women during slavery. But, like Inglourious Basterds before it, the cruelty of the era in which Django Unchained is set is merely a context for his characters’ actions, not the actual topic of the narrative. Tarantino has about as much to say about slavery here as he did about the Holocaust in Basterds, which is to say, not much. Although it’s worth noting that much of the tension (and, frankly, humor) of the film comes from white (and sometimes black) reactions to a black man in a position of authority, much less equality, making the films tonal analogue Blazing Saddles as much as any spaghetti western. And not since that film have we seen this many white characters uttering the N-word, if that sort of thing offends you (full disclosure: I’m black, and it didn’t).
What Tarantino does have to say overall isn’t quite as layered as his commentary on storytelling and the morally specious satisfaction audiences can take in violence that lay embedded in Basterds, but there are still some interesting threads about infantilization (the whites in the film, especially Candie, seem to view blacks as children more than animals) and some fairly common Tarantino riffs on performance and role-playing. For the most part, however, Tarantino seems to be reveling in the vibrant, if often ugly, characters he’s created and how they interact with one another, in particular Candie’s slave chief-of-staff, in a phenomenal performance by Samuel L. Jackson.
If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film before, it might be worth brushing up on some of his work before deciding if Django is worth a trip to the theater (which, if you are going to see it, is pretty essential given Robert Richardson’s glorious cinematography). If you have seen Tarantino’s work, then you already know what to expect and your decision should be easy.