Few directors working today have developed as distinctive a style as Tarantino. When you walk into one of his movies or pop one into the ol’ DVD player, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: genre riffs, an endless amount of pop culture references, elaborate dialogue sequences, a meticulously curated soundtrack, plenty of blood and violence and…well, just take a look at this handy slideshow. The point is that you probably have already decided what you think of Tarantino as a director, and whether you think he’s a modern visionary or a self-indulgent hack, Django Unchained, his latest cinematic pop art confection, is unlikely to change your opinion. Though some of his stylistic tendencies don’t surface here (gone is the usual segmented format, and his foot fetish is thankfully kept to a minimum), the spaghetti western homage is signature Tarantino.
The theme of revenge has been one of the biggest constants throughout Tarantino’s career. This time around, he sets his sights on slavery in the American antebellum South with a tale of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter intent on rescuing his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. It’s a thorny topic, though one not tackled nearly often enough in film, and the question of whether Tarantino is being disrespectful in using this ugly, still-painful time in American history as the basis for a revenge fantasy is certainly valid (in fact, director Spike Lee has already voiced his opposition to the movie and vowed to boycott it). Still, there’s something refreshing about Tarantino’s unflinching, in-your-face approach to the subject, his refusal to soften the blow for fear of offending audiences, and at least he’s open about the element of exploitation that inherently comes with depicting something like this onscreen (what exactly makes Django any more exploitative than, say, The Help?). To be sure, this is not exactly the most comfortable experience you’ll have at the theater this year; some scenes, like ones involving a pack of dogs and Mandingo fighting, are downright excruciating to watch. If you can stomach the brutality, however, it is a giddy, visceral and ultimately rewarding ride.
Honestly, if you’re relying on this man to teach you about slavery, I think we have some other problems to worry about.