(R) 2 1/2 stars
There's something perversely appropriate about Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" being released the same year as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" - one of which takes brazen creative liberties with history, one that's far more prudent in its license-taking, but both of which in their own way reanimated Civil War-era America in exhilarating ways.
"Django Unchained" breathes its own refreshing, occasionally demented, life into that time period, albeit in a pulpy, stylized cinematic language more akin to vampire-hunter cartoonishness than "Lincoln's" more classical reserve. But the art of creative anachronism Tarantino practices in this extravaganza of Southern gothic camp is far more successful than 2009's "Inglourious Basterds" in meaningfully engaging the history it's repurposing. Where "Basterds" was little more than a larky speculative burlesque, "Django Unchained" possesses an unmistakable subversive power, its playfully insurrectionist spirit perhaps the modern-day pop-culture equivalent of far more high-stakes rebellions of yore. There's a point in "Django Unchained" when its sheer absurdity, luridness and violence pose an inescapable challenge to the skeptical literalists in the audience: Sure, this is an outrageous distortion, the "Django Unchained" movie itself seems to say, but is it any more outrageous than "The Birth of a Nation" or "Gone With the Wind"?
Even as he liberally peppers his dialogue with racial epithets (spoken, as often as not, by an imperious house servant named Stephen, played by a prosthetically aged Samuel L. Jackson), Tarantino doesn't shrink from the inhumane realities of life for enslaved people in 19th-century America: One of the first shots of the film captures the horrifically scarred backs of several men as they're force-marched through the Texas countryside on a chain gang. That's where the title character (Jamie Foxx) meets an itinerant dentist named Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on a job. Django assures Schultz that he can identify the three men Schultz is looking for and agrees to help him if Schultz will in turn help him find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Full of the campy signifiers of the 1970s exploitation genre Tarantino worships so lavishly, "Django Unchained" opens with a big, overproduced theme song, eventually becoming a spaghetti Western in the tradition of Franco Nero (who has a bit role). Fully kitted out in low-crowned hat, holster and menacing slouch, Django comes to resemble Nat Turner by way of Clint Eastwood, an archetypal vigilante radically redefined across the ages. "Kill white folks and they pay you for it?" he asks when Schultz suggests he become a bounty hunter, too. "What's not to like?"
The most recognizable elements of Tarantino's style are all on full, florid display: the self-conscious talk-talk-talk interrupted by spasms of graphic cruelty and gore; the poppy color and visual wit (Schultz's carriage is topped by a tooth on a spring that bounces back and forth like a child's toy); the nods and winks at grindhouse schlock gone by. "Django Unchained" might raise questions about whether Tarantino is trading in the very brand of voyeuristic exploitation he's critiquing, as in a scene when a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches two enslaved men "Mandingo fighting." But later, when he shows a man being castrated, the scene plays less like a cheap stunt than a weirdly honest confrontation with a painful, unresolved past. And, in spite of his own tendency to put everything in quotation marks, Tarantino creates images of real power and beauty, such as when a spray of blood stains the lily-white bolls of a cotton field. (He also knows that ridicule sometimes has more throw-weight than rage, such as in a hilarious sequence featuring the Ku Klux Klan that hoists the terrorist organization on its own pathetic petard.)
For viewers who already share Tarantino's love of genre, "Django Unchained" is - at least for its first two hours - enormously satisfying. Waltz, who won an Oscar for his depiction of a depraved Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds," plays the good guy here to similarly potent effect, and DiCaprio tucks into his character's effete venality with scenery-chewing relish. But colorful characters and performances can only mask thinly schematic underpinnings for so long. Eventually, Tarantino resorts to his usual fall-back position, which is to bathe everything and everyone in sight in gunfire, gore and geysers of blood. "Django Unchained" goes out on a furious tide of retributive carnage, with its rapacious fops and spitting, slack-jawed yokels learning - seemingly for a good 30 minutes - that payback's a stone bummer.
Catharsis is all but impossible in the face of Tarantino's own notorious self-indulgence: His love of a good bloodbath finally negates the admittedly exaggerated but brutally vivid truths he's evoked. There's an infectious, unfettered fearlessness to "Django Unchained" that makes it enormous fun to watch, but even the most soaring ode to liberation can benefit from some restraint.