You don’t complain about excessive violence if you’ve chosen to watch a Quentin Tarantino film. But in Django Unchained, his homage to spaghetti westerns set in the pre-Civil War era of black slaves and ruthless white oppressors, the celebrated filmmaker invites us to witness such an orgy of brutality and bloodshed that you have to ask if the film is attacking cruelty or reveling in it.
Even as you debate that point, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a lot to admire in this stylish revenge fantasy that’s peppered with the kind of unforgettable touches only Tarantino could get away with. But alas, the man wants to squeeze in every idea he has, no matter how it all fits together…and as a result, the film’s close-to-three-hours running time often feels like a slog.
Jamie Foxx is Django, a shackled slave, whose encounter with eccentric German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) sets the film’s plot into motion. Freeing Django from a chain gang, Schultz recruits him to identify three outlaws. Pretty soon the two men become partners, cleaning the land of lawbreakers through some pretty violent means. Schultz then promises to lead Django to his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and help him rescue her from the clutches of sadistic slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The first thing to notice is that Tarantino hasn’t tired of his love for pithy dialogue, the bulk of which go to Christoph Waltz, who uses it to construct another deliciously menacing character after that monstrous Nazi, Col Hans Landa, in Inglourious Basterds. Leonardo DiCaprio, too, appears to be having a blast, playing the racist villain of the piece, complete with moustache-twirling glee. The real surprise, however, is delivered by a near-unrecognizable Samuel L Jackson who shows up in the small but memorable part of Candie’s creepy man-servant.
There are some terrific moments of inspired humor, like a scene in which the Ku Klux Klan gets into an argument over the size of the eyeholes in their hoods. The film is dazzlingly shot and is set to a terrific score, but as it approaches the three-hour mark, its indulgences begin to show. Just when you think the film has come to an end after a gruesome confrontation in the final act, the story rambles on for another 20 minutes only to culminate in another even more blood-splattered face-off that you leaves you feeling exhausted.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Like his previous films, this isn’t for the faint hearted. Die-hard fans, meanwhile, will likely forgive its shortcomings.