For some, a new Quentin Tarantino film isn't just another movie opening -- it's an experience that borders on the religious. The director has only released a handful of films since his groundbreaking debut "Reservoir Dogs" back in 1992, and each one has carried with it the weight and expectations of a whole group of comic book-reading, Asian DVD-importing film freaks (full disclosure: myself included). Whether he's tackling a two-part kung fu revenge epic, rewriting World War II, or showing us that a car might be death proof, Tarantino goes all in each time he gets behind the camera.
Which brings us to his seventh film, the eagerly-anticipated "Django Unchained." The second part of a planned historical trilogy (the third would be a '30s-set gangster movie), "Django Unchained" takes place two years before the Civil War and follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), as he teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his wife from an evil plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Yes, the filmmaker who was criticized by Spike Lee for his excessive use of the n-word in "Jackie Brown" and "Pulp Fiction" is now tackling slavery. Hot button, indeed!
But is "Django Uncahined" an artistic triumph or does it fall hopelessly short of its intended goal? Read on to find out.
PRO: It's Pretty Ballsy
True, in "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino rewrote the end of World War II, having a band of plucky, Nazi-scalping renegades (along with the awesome power of cinema) put an end to the Third Reich, which definitely ruffled some feathers. But heroine Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) wasn't someone who survived the Holocaust -- she was a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. Django is, as we see in the opening sequence and in several vivid flashbacks, very much a slave. Tarantino dramatizes this unflinchingly, unafraid to depict the brutal level of violence slaves had to endure. This isn't some cookie cutter version of history -- this is the nasty, unfiltered stuff. But it's not lacking purpose: we need to understand where Django came from in order to fully appreciate the journey he takes. Django is, thanks to his partnership with Waltz's King Schultz, afforded a level of independence that was unheard of for a black man. Yet he's still, at least spiritually, locked in chains. The movie is brilliant, through and through, but Tarantino's masterstroke might have been his cocksure attitude towards showcasing history's horrors.
CON: For Some, It Will Be "A Little Much"
For the purposes of this rundown, we'll say that there are two types of violence in "Django Unchained" -- the more realistic, grittier slave violence, and the over-the-top Quentin Tarantino violence, in which squib hits don't just leave a brief burst of blood but instead rocket a whole crock-pot full of the red stuff in every direction. Both are pushed ridiculously far, but when it comes to the more fantastical violence, it borders on the surreal. In addition, there is the matter of the n-word, a term that was flung around pretty loosely at the time and a word that Tarantino has been known to utilize. All this adds up to an experience that some will find very hard to handle. This might be opening on Christmas Day, but you should probably leave grandma at home.
PRO: The Music
Nobody chooses music like Quentin Tarantino, but "Django Unchained" is the first one of his films to have new music specifically written for it. That means when Django and Schultz roll up to Calvin Candie's plantation they're backed by a banging new Rick Ross song (ominously called "100 Black Coffins"). There's another moment where we're treated to a brand new John Legend track, co-written and produced by Paul Epworth, the genius behind Adele's "Skyfall" theme. However, there are preexisting selections as well -- the AM radio classic "I Got A Name" by Jim Croce might not seem at home in a bloody slave western, but it works perfectly here. (Tarantino also chooses some amazing selections from various scores/soundtracks, including the title track from the original "Django" films, which plays triumphantly over the opening credits.)
CON: Sally Menke's Absence Is Deeply Felt
In 2010, just a few months after "Inglourious Basterds'" triumphant awards/box office showing, Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, died tragically after hiking in the Hollywood hills. This is his first film without her. It's safe to say that Menke's absence is deeply felt. Not only are there some weird, unnecessary scenes that she would have never allowed in the final cut (including a baffling sequence where Django and Schultz drop off bodies -- what do we learn from this amd how does it further the plot?), but there are lingering remnants of moments that were edited out of the film. At one point Django metions a time where Schultz yells at him after overzealously killing a couple of slavers, except that we never see Schultz yell at Django, because that scene had been cut out of the movie. Tarantino has already made mention of a longer cut of the film, so let's hope it comes true.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first supporting performance in, like, 15 years, absolutely steals the show as plantation owner/super-villain Calvin Candie. He doesn't enter the movie until at least the halfway point, but after that, it pretty much belongs to him. DiCaprio’s Calvin has been raised by and around black folk his whole life but still looks to find ways to keep them enslaved. His "big" scene is one in which he explains to Schultz and Django, who have entered the plantation on false pretenses, the concept of "phrenology," a racist pseudo-science built around chronicling ridges in the human skull. The scene ends with Leo smashing a small glass with his bare hand (an on-set accident that drew real blood). Schultz and Django are shocked, their mouths agape. And you will be too.
Earlier on Moviefone: