The films and personality of Quentin Tarantino both tend to have a polarizing effect on filmgoers, and Django Unchained will most assuredly continue that tendency and for the same basic reasons.
Despite his reputation, QT’s early work is actually not that violent when compared to most contemporary action movies. It’s the slow, tense build-up and the sudden, sporadic bursts that give the sense these films are more violent than they actually are. But with Kill Bill, Tarantino began veering more towards the all-out, gleeful blood-spilling that his cinematic heroes – guys like Kinji Fukasaku, John Woo and Sam Peckinpah – practiced in their heydays. When that same kind of aestheticized violence is paired with a highly charged topic like slavery, it’s tricky territory.
For the most part, Spike Lee’s criticisms notwithstanding, Tarantino navigates this territory fairly well. Don’t expect any profound historical or psychological insights, though. The antebellum South simply serves as an operatic backdrop for what is essentially another revenge fantasy, an entertaining if less layered one than the brilliant Inglourious Basterds.
Tarantino’s usual obsessions (race, revenge, derivative homages to old films) and stylistic flourishes are all present in Django Unchained and will incite heated argument as always. Personally, I’ve always felt ambivalent about the way he treats these subjects even as I enjoy his work. But one thing I have always been unambivalent about is his talent as a filmmaker which is on full display here from the loving attention to detail in every shot to the dedicated, nuanced performances of his actors.
Say what you will about QT, one thing for certain is that his oeuvre has invigorated contemporary cinema over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of public interest and debate. And if for that reason alone, even, he has earned his place in film history.[subscribe2]