It would now be a surprise if a new Quentin Tarantino movie didn’t dip into the well of ’70s grind-house cinema. Django Unchained, Tarantino’s deliriously kicky and shameless (and also overly long and scattershot) racial-exploitation epic, is set in the slave days, and among other things, it’s a low-down orgy of flamboyant cruelty and violence: whippings, a scene in which a man gets torn apart by dogs, plus the most promiscuous use of the N-word ever heard in a mainstream movie. Is Django attacking the cruelty or reveling in it? Maybe both, and that’s what gives the film’s best parts their danger — the way that Tarantino, with lip-smacking down-and-dirty subversive gusto, rubs our noses in the forbidden spectacle of America’s racist ugliness.
What’s fun about Django — at least, when it is fun — is that it’s also a liberal-hearted revenge Western, with a stoically commanding Jamie Foxx in the part of Django, a slave who is bought and freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an abolitionist bounty hunter. He wants Django to help him locate and hunt down a handful of the slave’s former overseers. Waltz, speaking in his German-from-Neptune accent, and in cadences so literate they’re a little loopy, plays Schultz as a charismatic benevolent oddball, and he and Foxx, with that smoky and knowing killer gaze, make an irresistible buddy team.
Yet the film’s first hour is a little…basic. There’s a funny, farcical scene with an early version of the Klan (the joke is they can’t see out of their hoods), but Django doesn’t spike to full Tarantino fever until it gets inside the big house of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wily plantation owner. One of his slaves, Broomhilda (a luminous Kerry Washington), is Django’s wife, and Schultz and Django now pretend to be slave traders to fool Candie into selling her.
DiCaprio, having a blast, makes Candie the equivalent of Waltz’s Nazi in Inglourious Basterds: a racist villain who mesmerizes us by elevating his ideology into a puckishly thought-out vision of the world. Yet Django isn’t nearly the film that Inglourious was. It’s less clever, and it doesn’t have enough major characters — or enough of Tarantino’s trademark structural ingenuity — to earn its two-hour-and-45-minute running time. What it does have is Samuel L. Jackson in a pinpoint performance as an unctuous old house slave who’s more layered than he appears, and when Django, Schultz, and Candie are sitting around the parlor trying to outwit each other, the film achieves that QT hypnotic mood. But only for a while. In the gaudy-bloody last 30 minutes (think over-the-top and beyond), the mood vanishes. And Django Unchained becomes an almost sadistically literal example of exploitation at its most unironic. B-