Give Quentin Tarantino this much: He’s got balls. Imagine entering a meeting with a major studio 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. If nothing else, Django Unchained
has audacity going for it. But it raises a question 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. Why, then, did I leave the theater feeling not exhilarated but empty? Django Unchained
trivializes an atrocity, and that makes it hard to digest as fun, frivolous popcorn. 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. Its staggering runtime—two hours and 45 minutes—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. And Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a psychotic cloaked in Southern gentility, bites down with rotted teeth into a role of slimy, slithering, utterly unsubtle evil. 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.