Quentin Tarantino is his old self again in Django Unchained, and your response to that statement is probably a good barometer for whether you should see it or not. After what I thought was a step toward maturity with 2009's excellent Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has retreated back to his two favorite things in the world with Django: exploitation and pastiche. Now, he's a Picasso with blood and genre-mashing. There's no one better. At some point, though, one has to ask what all that brilliant craftsmanship is for, and the answer concerning most of his films is inconclusive and unsettling.
The ostensible mission of Django and Basterds is to exact a little retroactive retribution on behalf of the victims of the slave trade and the Holocaust, respectively. The perpetrators of these horrors are long dead, their names now relegated to the dusty coffers of memory and history; but from a 21st-century perspective this seems suspiciously close to letting them get away with it. We thirst for justice now, today. What better way to punish these people than by dragging them into our world from their safe place in the past, then giving them a taste of their own medicine? And if we're looking for the best in creative, painful, thrillingly orchestrated brutality, we know who to call.
Vengeance is mine, saith Tarantino—but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it, too.
Which is how we find ourselves in the deep South, the winter before the Civil War ignites, mentally pumping the fist as Django (Jamie Foxx) stomps on a slave trader's shattered leg. We've already been nudged toward this reaction by a pointed shot of the scar tissue crisscrossing Django's back, a graphic reminder of the sort of business that man with the shattered leg is involved in. In case we have lingering reservations, we're also told by Christoph Waltz's cheerfully amoral bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (get it?), that the injured man is a former outlaw with a price on his head. In short, this is a bad guy, and he deserves what he gets.
So it goes. All of Django's primary characters are either Good Guys or Bad Guys. The only time Tarantino injects any notes of moral discomfort with Django and Dr. Schultz's mission comes relatively early: When Django hesitates to gun down an outlaw in front of the man's young son, Schultz reminds him that vengeance is a bloody business that will require him to "get dirty." His resolve thus strengthened, Django pulls the trigger. It's an interesting enough moment that is defanged later on, when we realize that its true function is actually to set up a later scene when the two characters' roles are reversed. Django: "What you said was, this is my world. In my world you gotta get dirty. So that's what I'm doing—I'm gettin' dirty."
This is pure, uncut Clint Eastwood dialogue. In itself, that's not necessarily problematic: if you buy a movie ticket to a vigilante power fantasy, you know that a vigilante power fantasy is what you're going to get. But Tarantino wants his film to be more than just a Dirty Harry–like genre exercise. The touchy subject matter and the cannily detailed depiction of slavery's ugliness give it a veneer of thoughtfulness. It's clear that Django Unchained isn't intended to be mere entertainment—it's intended to give us capital-J justice, cathartic and cleansing. The violence is ferocious, almost beyond belief; but don't worry, the film reassures us, these people deserve it. We have the power to make them suffer because we are morally superior to them. The wicked will be punished, and perhaps by exulting in their punishment we can in some small way expiate the sins of our society's past.
It's a seductive promise that's never explicitly spelled out, and with good reason. A more self-serious film, with milder violence and more chin-stroking speeches about racial equality and the morality of revenge, would have had about as much bite as a teacupful of earthworms. By expressing it using the blithely unpretentious language of 1970s genre flicks instead, Tarantino avoids the limp white-guilt treacle of more polite films such as (urgh) The Help, which all have the good manners not to make us feel uncomfortable on the path to racial enlightenment. Whatever else Django Unchained is, it is not polite, and it deserves credit for that.
Still, the things the film implicitly says about violence and its relationship to justice are rather disturbing. There's no counterpoint to the film's bloodlust, nothing that complicates the viewer's perspective on Django's righteous wrath. While Inglourious Basterds leavened its down-and-dirty wish fulfillment with sly digs at itself and its audience (see addendum), Django Unchained offers only the pleasurable adrenaline of watching bad people get a taste of their own medicine. Indeed, the demise of most of Django's targets is played for laughs. At one point he shoots an unarmed woman standing in a doorway, and she is blasted off her feet and into the next room, as though she were attached to a bungee cord. It's like a gory Bugs Bunny cartoon.
The true soul of the film lies in these flourishes, not in its engagement with race and history. Above all, the audience has come to see Django kick ass: the more entertaining the better. And Tarantino, knowing which side his bread is buttered on, delivers the goods. When Django's guns come out and a James Brown/Tupac mashup erupts on the soundtrack, it's impossible not to be swept up in the fervor of the moment. It's practically orgasmic. In that way, Django Unchained is the left-wing counterpart to the jingoism-and-xenophobia wet dream of 300. The cinematic spectacle of Us obliterating Them is the main, perhaps the only, attraction. Stacking the deck by populating the "Them" roster with reprehensible characters does not change the fact that Tarantino is appealing to some pretty dark human impulses. It just makes us feel better about surrendering to them, that's all.
This review took me a few weeks to write, mostly because I was struggling with my own surrender to the film. I can't claim to be unaffected by its lurid charms: in the theater, my inner self was cheering like a Roman at the Colosseum. I wasn't sure what to make of my reaction. What does it say about me that I am so easily manipulated into bloodlust? What does it say about us that so many intelligent people have been praising a film that unabashedly plays to our appetites for vengeance and bloodshed? So many Tarantino movies presume a world where triumph comes only through domination of others, where "gettin' dirty" is the only logical response to being wronged, where only violence can defeat violence. Thank Christ we don't have to live in that world.