Django Unchained is the most brutal film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Unlike Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds, where the violence was thrilling and carried a visceral kick, the carnage here is often ugly and difficult to watch. The movie is a western set in the antebellum South, but its central subject is slavery and the unspeakable abuse of blacks in the era, and Tarantino doesn’t shy from coming in close to show you the details. There are sequences in the film, such as a scene in which two men are forced to fight each other to the death using only their hands, that are horrifying – intentionally so.
But the movie is also exciting and ironic and, at times, explosively funny: Even at his most serious, Tarantino can’t help but entertain and show you a good time, and his cast perfectly straddles the line between drama and comedy. Jamie Foxx stars as the eponymous hero, a slave purchased by Dr. King Schultz, a loquacious and immensely likable German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, as sublime here as he was in Basterds). King teaches Django to stop thinking like a slave and start behaving as a free man. Django agrees to help his rescuer track down wanted men, as long as they make their way to his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is a slave at a plantation owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Told in linear chronological fashion (unusual for Tarantino), the first half of Django Unchained is a series of shoot-outs and chases leading to Candie’s opulent cotton farm, where we remain for most of the rest of the film. An air of stagnancy creeps in, partly because the love story between Django and Broomhilda feels perfunctory, and partly because DiCaprio is disappointing as the cruel and racist brat who views slaves as less than human. The actor, so good at playing troubled men, fares less well at radiating imperious menace. When he raises his voice, he sounds like a teenager who needs to be sent to his room, and he relies on his cigarette holder so much, it becomes distracting — an actor’s trick of incorporating a prop into a performance.
DiCaprio is completely overshadowed by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s main servant, a betrayer to his race who connives and betrays for the sheer fun of it. Stephen may be the most villainous of all of Tarantino’s villains — you will absolutely hate him — and Jackson plays his evil with an operatic furor.
Django Unchained has long sequences of dialogue (such as an endless dinner at the Candie mansion) that lack the tension and suspense of similar scenes in Inglourious Basterds: At two hours and 45 minutes, the movie drags, and a superfluous scene (featuring an unfortunate cameo by Tarantino) begs to have been excised. But all is forgiven by the time the movie reaches its insanely bloody climax (none of that sissy CGI gore here), a supremely satisfying dose of payback that earns Django his heroic dimensions. Django Unchained may be too graphic for sensitive viewers — Tarantino makes a point of showing you the darkest aspects of slavery — and too talky for impatient ones. But the movie works despite its flaws, another in the director’s numerous tales of revenge that mixes genres and history to create a western you’ve never seen before.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson.
Writer-director: Quentin Tarantino.
Producers: Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone, Stacey Sher.
A Weinstein Company release. Running time: 165 minutes. Vulgar language, extreme violence, heavy gore, torture and all the other things that make the holidays merry. Opens Tuesday at area theaters.