★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens in theaters Tuesday, Dec. 25
CLARIFICATION: In the original version of this review, we indicated that "computer-generated" effects were used to enhance Django Unchained. According to the film's visual effects editor, Andrew Eisen, the film's special effects were not computer generated – he says that the only digital manipulation used in the film was to paint out wires and to remove modern-day attributes from some scenes to maintain the period feel of the piece. The review has been corrected.
In Quentin Tarantino's Old South, white men are evil; black men are either submissive, simpering Uncle Toms or savagely beaten on a regular basis; and nearly everyone utters the N-word and F-word more frequently than a 19th-century Charleston slave auctioneer. In short, subtlety is, well, gone with the wind.
Django Unchained is the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in the pre-Civil War Deep South. He's on a mission to find and free his wife, from whom he was separated when the two were sold to different owners. Fortune smiles on him when he meets Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German working in the United States as a bounty hunter. Schultz buys Django, hoping the slave can help him in his brutal business. If Django does what he's told, Schultz, an anti-slavery advocate and seemingly the only decent Caucasian in the entire South, promises to not only grant Django his freedom but help rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Along the way, the two meet a colorful assortment of characters, including Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Candie's head "house slave" (Samuel L. Jackson) and, in a delicious cameo, a character played by Franco Nero, the star of the original Django, the 1966 spaghetti Western that inspired Tarantino. The entire cast, in typical Tarantino fashion, is mesmerizing and moves the stylistic, gripping narrative along quite well until, in the final act, it unravels faster than Scarlett O'Hara's petticoat on her wedding night.
Tarantino's love of violence clearly goes beyond a stylistic admiration and into the realm of fetish. In his earlier works, such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, violence, though sometimes gratuitous, usually served a purpose. But in Django Unchained, it's just stupidly over the top, as it was at times in the Kill Bill films. And the unrealistic special effects make the brutality even more laughable. Only Tarantino could make Martin Scorsese resemble Frank Capra.
Admittedly, calling Tarantino unrealistic is not a valid criticism. He rightfully subscribes to the notion that a film is not a photo, but rather a painting, with a variety of styles to choose from. The director obviously prefers expressionism to naturalism, and few do it with more critical and popular acclaim. It's just a shame that his brushstrokes had to be so broad this time.
Tarantino's most ardent admirers would expect no less, however, and will likely love the director's latest Western-style epic and its bloated, nearly three-hour runtime. But more discriminating viewers will be upset that the film falls far short of his previous project, Inglourious Basterds. Even more disappointing is that someone with such a mastery of the craft of filmmaking can make such unfathomably bad artistic choices.
I've always wondered whether Tarantino would finally grow up. But after seeing his latest spectacular, bloody mess of a movie, frankly, I don't give a damn.