Set two years before the American Civil War, Tarantino's new film opens with the German bounty hunter slash traveling dentist, Dr. Schultz, stopping a pair of men leading a group of chained slaves. He is looking for a particular man, and is willing to pay for him, should he be there--which, of course, he is, second from the end of the line: a man named Django. Afterward, Schultz, who is uncomfortable with slavery, offers Django a deal: work with him to find three men and he can have his freedom and seventy-five dollars. A friendship ensues and the two band together to track down Django's wife, the German named Broomhilda, who is now owned by Calvin Candie, a wealthy slave owner who also takes great interest in making slaves fight unto the death.
It is, by and large, a good film, with much to recommend it--Christoph Waltz is once again great, but it is Samuel L. Jackson who is the standout to me--but with a few structural issues mostly centred around the transition from Schultz and Django's friendship to the end of winter, when they head off in search of Broomhilda. There is also an awful bit involving Australians which had everyone in the cinema laughing at the accents--and that's fair enough, because frankly, they were awful. Not just bad, but awful.
Yet, what marks the film mostly got me is that it is the least enjoyable of Tarantino's films. Now, I want to be clear on this distinction before I continue: when I talk about enjoyment, I mean the ability to sit back, chill and move along to the film, viewing it strictly as entertainment, and leaving the subject out of it. Tarantino's films leading up to Inglorious Basterds were enjoyable films, and I have enjoyed them all to greater or lesser degrees. But with his previous film, there was a change in Tarantino the director, and a subtext and layering began to enter the work, most of which was uncomfortable. It was there in Kill Bill, but that was a film about Kung Fu films, and had very little social subtext, unlike Inglorious Basterds. It is difficult not to watch the superb opening scene of that film and not be chilled by what is happening and not to read into it a statement of what the filmmaker's intent will be.
However, Inglorious Basterds was a film that was still part of Tarantino's older work, and the parts of the film including Brad Pitt and the Americans felt unnecessary, as if they were part of a different film. I remember thinking, then, that if Tarantino dropped that from his film, he would have a lot stronger film--and that has what has happened in Django Unchained, but it has also resulted in a film that is less enjoyable in the way his previous films are.
Part of that, however, is the point: Django Unchained is a film meant to make you angry.
It is a film that is building up to its final scenes of violence, much like Inglorious Basterds, and which offers a cathartic experience through it. But in Django Unchained the build up to that, without the comic element the Americans in the previous film provided, is intense, relentless, and awful. Slavery is shown not just as a degrading, awful institution, but also as an institution in which African American men and women lived, loved, and succeeded in it, though all these successes, due to slavery, were but illusions. It is the 'success' of their lives within slavery that is the truly angering part for there is no success in it but rather a division and awfulness that results in the continual persecution from within their own community, on each other. Tarantino develops this slowly throughout the film, but it is not until Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, the elderly house slave who jealously controls his power in the Candie estate, that the point is made. That it is he, not DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, that is viewed as the most knowing villain in the film is a dangerous statement, if you do not believe that the film has made the argument that he is also a tragic figure, having 'succeeded' in the world of slavery where other African American men and women did not, and views himself as being 'apart' from the slave community, when he is clearly not.
Regardless, at the end, Django Unchained is a good film, and continues the evolution of Quentin Tarantino as a director, showing a rare development of craft and themes that is, by and large, missing in mainstream Hollywood cinema.