You can tell you're watching a Quentin Tarantino film if it's ultra violent, unsettling, the humor is off-putting, scenes are inflated, it's controversial and the "N" word flows like the Mighty Mississippi. Hence, Django Unchained.
The movie's original, pre-Civil War Spaghetti-Western premise is novel and has merit. According to Tarantino, "The initial germ of the whole idea was a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and then goes after overseers that are hiding out on plantations." That kernel of a thought and an empty canvass gave Tarantino endless possibilities. After all, Hollywood has never told a slave-out-for-vengeance story before (e.g. Nat Turner's Rebellion). So what happened?
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds), a German ex-dentist, now a ribald bounty hunter, trolls the South looking for criminals. He sets his sights on the Brittle Brothers, killers. He encounters a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who can identify the brothers. Schultz promises to buy Django his freedom if he helps him nail the bad guys. Several corpses later, the German profits and schools his protégé on the tricks of the trade: Schultz: "Bounty hunting is like slavery, it's a cash for flesh business." Django: "I want to shoot white folks for money."
Shultz teaches his apprentice marksman and gunslinger skills. Django, unchained, is both lauded and envied by slaves. The newly freed man, who has been separated from his loving wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), seeks her. The two bounty hunters track her down to Candyland; a Mississippi plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is pampered by his Stepin Fetchit house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). The guys hatch a convoluted plan to free Broomhilda. Things go awry.
Varied supporting characters pepper the storyline: An evil overseer (Don Johnson as Big Daddy); a jealous slave (Jarrod Bunch); a testy sheriff (Tom Wopat); and hangers-on (Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Franco Nero -- who played Django in the original 1966 film -- and Tarantino who makes an over-conspicuous cameo). The potluck approach to casting is added to a jittery, debauched and circus-like atmosphere. Heads are graphically shot off. A slave is pulled apart and killed by ferocious dogs. Broomhilda is whipped like she is no more than a stubborn mule. Then in an over-extended scene a picayune KKK-type posse bitterly complains about their ill-fitting, can't-see-through-the-eye-holes, white pillowcase hoods. The acts of violence and senseless degradation coupled with silly antics make the depravity of slavery seem simply buffoonish, not tragic. History begs to differ.
Even if you got your psych degree on eBay, you can probably figure out that the chatty, loquacious self-absorbed, patronizing Shultz is Tarantino's alter ego. He doles out information in condescending platitudes like Dr. Phil with an acute case of noblesse oblige. The trailers, posters and press photos hype Django, but it feels like most of the attention and dialogue goes to Schultz for the first two thirds of the movie. At the end of the film Django charts his own destiny, but it's too little, too late -- especially considering the film's original premise.
The hodgepodge dialogue fails to set itself firmly in the 19th century. It wavers between tough-talking street language, Southern drawls, Western twangs, Aussie and German accents. The language is also incendiary: The "N" word is uttered about 112 times. As a noun. As an adjective. Whites use it. Blacks use it. Men. Women. Other derogatory words for African Americans are summoned up occasionally to break the monotony, but curiously the slaves don't use degrading terms for their overseers.
The direction stays firmly within the predictable bounds of Tarantino's violent sensibility (e.g. Kill Bill). Some of the brutal murders are so absurd it's almost like you're watching a horror movie where zombies are shot but they just won't die. Other killing scenes are more nuanced, like when Schultz employs his suit-sleeve derringer; there is a finesse to these dainty homicides that is far more memorable than some of the brutal slaughters.
The eclectic musical score ('60s Spaghetti Westerns music, hip-hop, rap and folk music) never gels. There are shots (cinematographer Robert Richardson, Hugo) of Foxx riding bareback on a horse with a rifle in hand that are simply iconic. Sharon Davis (Dreamgirls), a master costume designer, gets Foxx to wear an oddly funny teal blue Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with a frilly white lace shirt.
Kerry Washington pouts and looks befuddled on cue. Her eyes moisten up when she is being beaten, but it is hard to take her seriously, or any other character for that matter, because you're watching silly action/comedy and not earnest drama. Leonardo DiCaprio's righteous indignation is wasted on a worthless character. With decisive conviction and eyes bulging like 100-watt light bulbs, Samuel L. Jackson hurls the "N" word like it's a tomahawk; it's a unique skill he's honed since Pulp Fiction. Not a covetable distinction.
Jamie Foxx has his simmering, brooding moments. His best scenes are when he is slinging a gun with wild abandon. His worst are when he mumbles. Also, he might want to ask his agent how he got a starring role in a movie where a showboating, scenery-chewing supporting actor (Waltz) takes up all the oxygen in the room.
This film will spark debate. Is it legitimate, innocuous satire backdropped against history? Is it hideously demeaning? Does it trivialize slavery? Should Hollywood introduce one of America's most heinous, genocidal institutions to this generation as a 180-minute joke?
You can tell you're watching a Quentin Tarantino film if ... you know the rest.
Visit NNPA Syndication Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwighBrownInk.com.