For all its willfully controversial brio, Django Unchained is one of the more stiflingly self-conscious of recent American movies. There’s a quiet moment early in the film that’s revealing. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist, is sitting in an empty bar opposite of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave he’s recently freed from a pair of vicious traders. It’s 1858, two years before the American Civil War, and we’re in the thick of the country’s antebellum South. The bartender, having refused to serve Django, has fled to rally some law to discipline this odd pair of salt-and-pepper gunslingers. Dr. King pours Django and himself a beer and the two drink in a moment of rare repose. As they wait for the local trouble to come knocking, Dr. King tells Django that, while he’s disgusted by this slavery business, he’ll use it to his temporary advantage. An agreement is then struck: Django will lead Dr. King to his former slavers, the two will kill them for a sizable payday, and Django will then be a free man.
This scene functions as writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s statement of intent, as he also intends to use slavery to his advantage, and he knows he’s treading on thematic territory of potentially questionable taste. Because Tarantino, of course, is a rich white guy who aims, in the tradition of his Inglourious Basterds, to retroactively correct another real-life atrocity by applying the laws of the revenge movies he greatly cherishes. In Tarantino’s cinema, American slavery, a prolonged and unfathomably massive act of cruelty that continues to explicitly haunt its citizens’ collective sensibilities, is perfectly acceptable fodder for a tribute to the B westerns of Sergio Corbucci and many others.
To be fair, there’s a potential, morally urgent, point to Tarantino’s hubris, and it surfaced in his brilliant and surprisingly wrenching Inglourious Basterds. In that film, Tarantino made the Allied Forces’ struggle against the Nazi party feel intense and alive; the surprise of a director fiddling with the details of a real-life tragedy for a genre story jarred us out of our complacency with history as a school-time lesson that’s dead and buried. In the film’s climax, Tarantino conjured a resonant image that’s in the league of the best work of one of his heroes, Brian De Palma: a dead Jewish girl reborn as an avenging wraith, emblematic of cultural wounds that won’t easily heal. It’s clear that Django Unchained is intended to similarly examine the scars of American slavery, but the film is too sloppy, unfocused, and thematically unresolved.
Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the word “nigger” in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this movie’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation.
Near the end, Tarantino toys with actual subversion by threatening to deny us the action-movie catharsis we expect, thus leaving the film’s racial tension pregnant and unresolved, but that gesture proves to be empty. Like the Kill Bill movies, which hid their bloodthirstiness behind an incoherent feminist subtext, Django Unchained is a gore-fest that consciously courts the sympathies of the liberal mindset that can usually be relied on to scoff at fanatical revenge fantasias. But this film doesn’t have the dissonances that liberated Inglourious Basterds, which featured Nazi soldiers who were good, honorable people at the service of a perverse system. The slavers, with only a few exceptions, are all slobbery and inhuman cavemen ripe for being blown apart in cartoonish fashions that rival the early films of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, while the slaves are tortured and killed in a comparatively more realistic manner that’s unearned in this context. It’s Tarantino’s way of having his cake and eating it too, of enjoying the press that greets an “important” film as well as the box office that’s associated with the red-meat genre movie that he’s really made. Tarantino was a more interesting and transgressive director when he wasn’t trying so hard to justify his gleeful, endlessly self-reflexive fantasies of macho retribution.
Like most Quentin Tarantino films, Django Unchained boasts an aesthetic that marries contemporary big-budget polish with the raw grunge of the genre films the director watched as a child. Grain level is purposefully higher than usual for a modern film, and colors occasionally have a bleached-out appearance. The film has a beautifully painterly retro look, and this transfer preserves Tarantino’s various intentions with eye-catching clarity. The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly rich in texture, particularly in regard to the rich assortment of background diegetic sounds that effectively ground the film in a sense of tactile reality.
The supplemental offerings are meager, particularly for a film as divisive and widely discussed as Django Unchained. The various featurettes are watchable, but cover little other than EPK-friendly generalities. There are even two explicit promotions for the film’s soundtrack as well as the recent Tarantino XX Blu-ray collection. Nothing to see here.
Django Unchained, arriving on Blu-ray and DVD with a meager collection of extras, is certainly a zesty night at the movies, but underneath the film’s mock pretensions is a relatively conventional revenge thriller.