Whatever you think about the work of Quentin Tarantino (either his body of work in general or his latest movie in particular), you have to give him some credit for the sheer gutsy determination with which he pursues his ferociously geeky projects. In Django Unchained, his almost pathological obsession with honouring and referencing his influences is married to a new creative hunger, an unusual one for a director who so frequently uses violence as a cheap thrill; the desire to tackle the depthless horror of American slavery.
Like its spiritual predecessor, the often inspired but frustratingly self-indulgent Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is part revenge fantasy, part Serious History re-imagined as romp. But while Basterds only pranced around the vileness of Nazism, Unchained plunges head-first into the subject of slavery, depicting some truly queasy, unsettling scenes of violence and cruelty made all the more disturbing by the helpless innocence of some of the victims. While the titular hero is freed early on thanks to the intervention of Christoph Waltz’s daredevil bounty hunter King Schultz (another seemingly effortlessly charismatic turn from Waltz, one of the most watchable actors in Hollywood at the moment), the film never flinches from reminding the audience that for countless other black people, horrible suffering is an everyday event, with a single mistake, a frantic bid for freedom or sheer bad luck triggering agony, mutilation or death.
Whether you feel this is an appropriate subject for a director of Tarantino’s reputation to handle is probably largely subjective, and mostly dependent on who you are and how emotionally close you are to the history being portrayed here. You can absolutely respect the decision of someone like Spike Lee to avoid the film; his objections seem understandable in context, and it’s not like choosing to avoid something you find to be in bad taste is the same as calling for blanket censorship or something.
The problem with Django’s tackling of race relations is that Tarantino has staked out his place in the pop-cultural pantheon as a sort of maestro of “cool”. The idea of a man whose continuing success has been built upon glitzy foundations of hip and geek cred turning his eye upon something as painfully real and relevant as America’s bloody past was always going to raise somebody’s hackles, though the general critical consensus appears to have embraced the movie, albeit with some reservations. In fact, the Tarantino “cool” does sit awkwardly alongside the grittier stuff. The litter of blatant anachronisms (like the suitably epic shades thrown in to make Jamie Foxx look intimidating), the steady stream of genre homages and the standard-issue superhuman badassitude of Django in his vengeful clashes with grotesque Southern whites all plant the film firmly in a familiar cartoonish hyper-reality. This would be absolutely fine in normal circumstances, all good family fun with lashings of stage gore. But when this cartoon world is mimicking the American South of plantations under the baking sun, of floggings and hot-boxes, of chains and dogs and screams…it’s awkward at best.
In short, this is legitimately not for everybody. But if you’re able to put your misgivings aside and appreciate the gleeful wish-fulfilment of a freed slave-hero in a fancy blue suit laying into a squirming, disgusting slaver with his own whip in epic slow motion, then you get to enjoy a gruesome odyssey of flamboyant style, towering villainy and even some affecting emotional beats. The emotional heart of the movie is the bond of mentorship that springs up between Django and Schultz, the man who freed him out of a confused mix of cynicism and humanitarianism, then nurtures his natural abilities as a gunslinger and all-around badass to equip him to rescue his lost wife (who is oddly and unfortunately a cipher).
The real stars of the show, however, are the baddies, who are truly scumbags for the ages. Leo DiCaprio is a revelation as Candie, owner and overlord of Candieland, a notorious plantation where Django’s wife languishes. Who’d have thought that a hammy arch-racist who casually orders acts of obscene butchery would prove to be DiCaprio’s most fascinating and memorable role since when? Candie truly earns the audience’s hate, but he’s more than a faceless monster doling out atrocities; his actions are grounded in an unstable personality whose gaucheness, angry intensity, and excruciatingly shallow gentlemanly pretentions add up to a nicely-rounded degenerate.
Then there’s Sam Jackson, playing Head House Slave Steven, who in a truly chilling development turns out to be both the calculating brains and the driving will behind the evil of Candieland. In a casting decision that smacks of genius, Hollywood’s foremost black actor (after Will Smith), a walking cultural shorthand for cool, is aged-up and comprehensively de-cooled to play a hopelessly institutionalized domestic tyrant, who has clearly inveigled his way to the top of Candieland’s slave hierarchy and now, in exchange for the comforts of his relative status and behind-the-scenes influence, proactively and enthusiastically collaborates in the stomach-churning oppression of less fortunate slaves.
The inclusion of this character is the strongest piece of evidence in favour of taking a generous view of Tarantino’s lurid take on the era. It would have been so easy to hold up DiCaprio’s Candie for the public to hiss at and leave it at that. But the wrong-footedness, the sick confusion of Jackson’s appearance as a truly troubling villain, a walking example of how deep-rooted brutality can throw up the most twisted results, suggests that, underneath all the quips and references and studied “cool”, Tarantino might just have found something deeper than "cool" after all.