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Django Unchained

Heartwarming holiday hijinx from Quentin Tarantino...psych!

DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO

The roaring rampage of revisionist revenge Quentin Tarantino began with Inglourious Basterds comes home to roost in Django Unchained, a characteristically verbose and bloody pastiche that aims to skewer America’s atrocity-blighted past. Much in the way Basterds irreverently rewrote history to visit fiery retribution upon Hitler and the Third Reich, Tarantino’s latest sees the pop-auteur harness his beloved genre tropes to alternately pick at and salve the wound that is the seldom confronted legacy of Southern slavery. And while Django Unchained doesn’t blur the distinction between “ingenious” and “indulgent” nearly as masterfully as its Second World War–set predecessor, this antebellum payback opus remains both a giddy, whip-smart entertainment and an appropriately unsparing provocation.

A hero who owes his origins variously to the seminal spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci, the high farce of Blazing Saddles, ’70s Blaxploitation flicks, and Teutonic epic poetry, Tarantino’s Django (Jamie Foxx) is a freed slave on a mission to liberate his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a life of servitude. His own emancipator and mentor is abolitionist bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz, played with garrulous verve by Cristoph Waltz, in a morally inverted redux of his marvelous turn as Basterds‘ Jew-hunting SS colonel. Leonardo DiCaprio is similarly loquacious, and similarly sensational, as top-billed antagonist Calvin Candie, the preening Mississippi planter and “Mandingo fighting” enthusiast to whom Broomhilda is indentured. The true arch-villain of the piece, however, is the magnetic Samuel L. Jackson, who, in one of Tarantino’s boldest feats of counterintuitive casting, plays Candie’s chief servant, a stooped, toadying Uncle Tom figure.

The decision to employ Jackson—cinema’s Angry Black Man par excellence—as a cunning but obsequious race traitor is indicative of a complexity that girds Django Unchained against hasty accusations that it trivializes its traumatic subject matter. It helps that sadistic thrills aren’t Tarantino’s only aim. Django Unchained’s depictions of the barbarism perpetrated against slaves—including a brutally protracted, bare-knuckle brawl to the death, staged for an intimate gathering of blithely genteel spectators—are plainly repugnant by design. Whatever the extent to which contemporary audiences implicitly abhor slavery, these scenes are graphic illustrations that the full extent of its depravity was uglier than we generally dare to imagine.

Of course, being a Tarantino joint, Django Unchained’s bracing bursts of violence are no impediment to laughs, particularly during the film’s magnificent first hour. As Shultz, Waltz delivers some of QT’s wittiest dialogue to date, while an interlude in which a posse of proto-Klansmen suffer a collective wardrobe malfunction is a riotous rebuke to The Birth of a Nation. And even though the pace does slacken in the film’s middle third, which includes an unsuccessful bid to match the suspense of Basterds’ spellbinding tavern scene, the performances by DiCaprio and Jackson are never less than scintillating.

The same can’t be said of Tarantino himself, who makes an ill-advised, dodgily accented cameo late on. It’s a moment that suggests a filmmaker firmly in thrall to his own impulses, for better and worse, and it arrives as Django’s story sprawls perilously close to the three-hour mark (and what feels like a third ending). But considering the fact that those same impulses have yielded such an otherwise intelligent and invigorating yarn, we’re hardly about to complain.

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