AS IRRITATING, if not quite as inflammatory, as a hemorrhoid, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained makes a queasy Oscar-season obverse not to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as some have suggested, but to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Though operating in vastly different genres—ZDT is a fact-based thriller about events of the past eleven years, Django Unchained an antebellum freed-slave revenger deeply in thrall to spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation movies—both are responses to eras in which the torture and subjugation of other human beings was part of US policy. One film unequivocally presents the horror of legally sanctioned physical abuse; the other is a little turned on by it.
Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth film (or seventh, if you count the bisected Kill Bill as one entity), operates in the same avenging-angel vein as his previous movie, the World War II–set Inglourious Basterds (2009), in which Nazis are scalped and set aflame. In both films, the writer-director imbues his florid cinephilia, the engine of all his productions, with the power to wield divine retribution, to turn history’s most vile abusers into its most cowering victims. This cartoonish fantasy works quite well in Inglourious Basterds: There is indeed something deeply, perversely satisfying about watching SS officers beg for their lives or the instantaneous combustion of the higher-ups of the Third Reich, gathered to attend a screening of a Nazi propaganda film.
Yet the cathartic thrills of witnessing that righteous, murderous revenge are gravely compromised in Django Unchained by Tarantino’s obsession with the ghastly torments inflicted on those who were considered chattel. The film opens in 1858 in Texas, where Teuton bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), posing as a dentist, buys Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters. In exchange for the now-freed slave’s assistance in a contracted kill, the good German promises to reunite Django with his wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington, her character’s improbable name explained in a signature Tarantino digression), and rescue her from the sociopathic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in deepest Mississippi.
A whole mess of nasty peckerwoods and slavers will get their due, either from bullets pumped into them or from sticks of dynamite detonated. These are high-volume, generic deaths, filling the screen with so much red or orange. Where Tarantino really likes to pull the camera in close is during those moments that further objectify the already abject. Punished for trying to run away, a slave is torn to pieces by dogs (a scene returned to in flashback); two shirtless, perspiration-soaked black men bare-knuckle battle for Candie’s pleasure (the victor of this “Mandingo fight” being the one who doesn’t die). Most egregiously, a slow pan down the body of a naked Django, strung up by his feet and only seconds away from castration from a Candie henchman, captures every taut muscle, every bead of sweat.
About the one white man who isn’t a blue-eyed devil: Schultz is unmistakably a benevolent force, but Waltz is essentially reprising the role he played in Inglourious Basterds, in which he dominated the screen as the suave Nazi colonel Hans Landa. Both Landa and Schultz are exceptionally eloquent polyglots whose perorations seem to punctuate every scene. So much screen time, in fact, is devoted to Schultz’s orotund speeches that taciturn Django (“I don’t know what positive mean”) is frequently overshadowed. In this, Tarantino’s film, for which he has coined a new genre, the “southern,” resembles not so much his beloved spaghetti westerns or Richard Fleischer’s notorious, similarly themed 1975 melodrama, Mandingo (which the late, great critic Robin Wood passionately, if not altogether convincingly, once hailed as “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood”), but The Blind Side.
Django Unchained opens December 25.