Give Quentin Tarantino this much: He's got balls. Imagine entering a meeting with a major studio, as a successful white director, and pitching a relentlessly violent, big-budget revenge fantasy about an escaped slave in the pre-Civil War South, who slaughters his way through Confederate plantation owners in search of his wife. Chances are, that director would be escorted out of the building before he got a chance to explain that the titular slave had been freed by an enlightened German bounty hunter named "Dr. King." If nothing else, Django Unchained has audacity going for it. Simply by existing, it provokes uncomfortable questions, and in a year when even the best mainstream films failed to stir conversation of any sort, that alone makes it important. But those discussions take place outside the movie's 165-minute runtime. In the film itself, the only question it raises is one that, ultimately, makes it tough to enjoy: When dredging up the ugliest period of American history for the sake of entertainment, is being cool enough?
Because Django Unchained is exceptionally cool. A mashed-up spaghetti Western and blaxploitation flick, it is the kind of kinetic pastiche job that's made Tarantino a genre unto himself. It's got tight, crackling dialogue, and three actors who revel in delivering it. It's got a handful of images—such as a close-up of a slave owner's blood misting across cotton bolls—that are among the best in the director's oeuvre. It's got original music by both Ennio Morricone and Rick Ross, and a slow-motion shootout set to a posthumous collaboration between Tupac and James Brown. And it splatters the screen with more plasma than—I'm willing to bet—the last dozen Weinstein properties combined.
Why, then, did I leave the theater feeling not exhilarated but empty?
At the risk of sounding overly sensitive, Django Unchained trivializes an atrocity, and that makes it hard to digest as fun, frivolous popcorn. As with Inglorious Basterds, in which he rewrote history to ensure Hitler didn't get off with such light punishment as suicide, Tarantino has taken it upon himself to offer an extreme form of catharsis for immense suffering, but the movie's blood lust contains little trace of actual empathy. While he deserves credit for not shying away from the brutality of slavery—no one in this country should ever be made to think the institution was anything less than barbaric—the violence is drooled over with the same cringing awe as the Reservoir Dogs ear-cutting scene. Every gunshot produces an exaggerated geyser of blood; every instance of gruesome inhumanity is cut with a sharp quip. Much has been made of the script's liberal deployment of "nigger," which might be accurate for the time period but becomes troubling considering Tarantino's past display of fetish for that word. (This is a guy who wrote himself a cameo in his directorial debut in which he repeated the epithet multiple times.) It's exploitation cinema that verges on being actually exploitative.
It is also too long. At a staggering two hours and 45 minutes, with a climax that feels like the ending of Scarface stretched to a half-hour, its runtime is earned only by its three lead actors. As the sociopath-cum-abolitionist Dr. King Schultz, Christoph Waltz makes Tarantino's words sing. Jamie Foxx finds a captivating stoicism as Django, bringing quiet dignity to a part that, despite being the name on the marquee, is startlingly underwritten. And Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a psychotic cloaked in Southern gentility, bites down with rotted teeth into a role of slimy, slithering, utterly unsubtle evil. When all three are onscreen together, trading elaborate thickets of dialogue, Django Unchained hits a point of visceral pleasure that transcends its hollow social conscience. But that doesn't happen until the final third of the film, and in the grand, sprawling scheme of things, it's relatively fleeting.
With Django Unchained, Tarantino has made another monument of cinematic cool. But has he made a responsible film? And does it matter? That, it turns out, is the biggest question of all.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Django Unchained is rated R. It opens Tuesday at Cedar Hills, Cornelius, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, City Center, Hilltop, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, St. Johns.