Brace yourselves for Quentin Tarantino's latest provocation, the spaghetti western cum slavery epic Django Unchained. Tarantino repeats the feat of Nazi-revenge wish-fulfillment fantasia Inglourious Basterds, with subject matter yet more highly charged for American audiences. Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained makes history its bitch in a way that's always audacious and entertaining, frequently funny and, at times, juvenile and repellent. That's the deal you enter into with Tarantino, so there's no point in acting surprised when he fulfills his promise.
He's the king of his own genre: call it scavenger cinema. A curator of down-and-dirty pictures, Tarantino crafts mash-ups of fave flicks from the '60s and '70s (such as the 1966 spaghetti western Django, whose star Franco Nero appears in Tarantino's film). In keeping with those films, Tarantino serves up a strong graphic sensibility (hello, snap zooms!), a funky soundtrack (from John Legend to Ennio Morricone), and a hyperbolic hero in Jamie Foxx's Django. As the film opens in 1858, Django gets sprung from a chain gang by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, reminding us why he won an Oscar for Basterds). Plainly noting, "I kill people and sell their corpses for cash," Schultz enlists Django to help him track three nasties and put them down. Django's a quick study, swiftly excelling his teacher in the art of killing.
This initial mission is but prelude to Django's one true purpose: to reunite with his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and free her from slavery. Taken with the mythic echoes of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Schultz agrees to help Django, and they set off for Candyland, the Deep South plantation ruled with an iron fist by Calvin Candie (a convincingly Mephistophelean Leonardo DiCaprio). There, Candie subjects his male slaves to "Mandingo fighting" (the term a nod to the Ghost of Blaxploitation Past) and his female slaves to prostitution.
Here, too, Tarantino introduces us to the "house Negro" Stephen, expertly played to the hilt by Samuel L. Jackson. A shameful collaborationist who has learned to shuck and jive to thrive, Stephen cackles at Candie's jokes and hovers over his shoulder obligingly. In these scenes, which also concern an elaborate ruse forcing Django to mistreat slaves, Tarantino thrillingly steps past the physical horrors and plain evil of slavery and into the moral complexities of this pre-Civil War war that also horribly pitted brother against brother.
But Tarantino's greater concern, as usual, is to entertain at all costs, so Django Unchained is content to turn into Blazing Saddles for five minutes (as it takes a Coen Brothers-esque swipe at the idiocy of the pre-KKK) and to feverishly indulge Tarantino's favorite genre: the revenge picture. Like Basterds, Django Unchained arrives at an opportunity for vengeance (and, for the audience, vicarious vengeance) in a bloodsport staged with hand-rubbing, lip-licking glee and the triumph of an end-zone dance.
There's a case to be made that blood-spattering revenge pictures, no matter how evil the villain, are cultural poison, but if this is what it takes to scandalize audiences with Don Johnson as a dyed-in-the-wool racist done up as Colonel Sanders, well, so be it. Try making a big-budget picture on American slave life and not being Quentin Tarantino, and see how far that gets you; meanwhile, thank goodness for not-so-small favors.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]