The “D” of the title may be silent, but director Quentin Tarantino’s super-charged, explosively violent, sporadically comical movie mash-up of sweaty ’60s spaghetti Westerns and Old South pulp starts out with a bang and gets even louder.
“Django Unchained,” set just a couple of years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, begins in Texas, where a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), is purchased by a wily German bounty hunter disguised as a traveling dentist (Christoph Waltz).
Dr. Schultz needs Django to assist him on a particular assignment, but the two eventually become unlikely partners, setting their sights on freeing Django’s still-captive wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from Candieland, a massive Mississippi cotton plantation.
Holding court in Candieland’s antebellum Playboy-mansion-like manor, Calvin Candie is played to smarmy, chillingly savage perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio. For viewers cherishing memories of Leo as the love-struck young swain Jack in “Titanic,” well, let’s just say that this role will boil away most of those old romantic barnacles.
Tarantino packs the sprawling storyline (which clocks in at just 15 minutes shy of three hours) with guest stars in quick, come-and-go roles, including Tom “Dukes of Hazard” Wopat, Don “Miami Vice” Johnson and Bruce Dern. Jonah Hill has a part in the movie’s most jarringly funny scene, a bungled Ku Klu Klan raid that goes awry because of misaligned eyeholes in the hoods.
The director even has a part, too. It’s a small one, but his character, an Australian slave trader, gets to make quite an exit.
Samuel L. Jackson, who’s appeared in several Tarantino films, gives one of the most unique performances of his career as Candie’s house servant, whose lifelong loyalty to his white master makes him a serious obstacle to Dr. Schultz and Django’s plans.
As with most Tarantino movies, this one’s brimming with the director’s signature pop-cultural mixology, including a soundtrack with tracks by rapper 2Pac and James Brown, Jim Croce and John Denver, and the theme song to the original 1966 movie, “Django,” from which this one takes its inspiration as well as its title.
The movie even makes a connection all the way from ancient German folklore to the distant future of 1970s with a possible hint that Django and his wife are genealogical forebears to another fictional black movie icon, John Shaft.
The movie’s also wall-to-wall with an audaciously assaultive use of the N-word, with easily more than 100 bombs-aways of an expression that mainstream Hollywood has traditionally employed with, shall we say, much more decorum and restraint.
As he did in “Inglourius Basterds,” Tarantino has created a revisionist revenge fantasy about one of history’s darkest, ugliest chapters, turning his focus this time on American slavery and slaveholders instead of Hitler and Nazis. Certainly some viewers might say he’s done so in poor taste, and even accuse him of exploiting the sadistic extremes of slavery for entertainment.
The director, whose other movies include “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” has never shied away from depictions of violence. And fans expecting him to push the envelope with “Django” won’t be disappointed.
More sensitive viewers, on the other hand, may not be so riveted by watching women get tied to trees and bullwhipped, seeing a man get ripped apart by dogs, the scene of Broomhilda naked and unconscious as she’s pulled from the sweltering metal underground “punishment” box where she’s spent several days, or any of the other gut-wrenching portrayals of the cruelties Tarantino serves up that white masters dish out to their black slaves.
At one point, Dr. Schultz asks Django if he enjoys being a bounty hunter. “Kill white folks and they pay you for it—what’s not to like?” Django asks in return.
Is it hard to watch? Definitely. It is controversial? Certainly—few movies have ever dared to stir such highly charged, potentially combustible subject matter into such a cocky cocktail audacious enough to whipsaw between scenes meant to make audiences uncomfortable, if not repulse them, and then make them laugh.
Is it entertaining? That all depends. If you’re washed in the blood of Tarantino, you’ll likely find it a wildly exhilarating ride, a kick, and a blast.
Otherwise, you’ve likely already decided on taking a quieter, less unsettling route down at the multiplex—and you’ll probably be glad you did.