I have to face it: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is his most entertaining piece of moviemaking since “Pulp Fiction.” Some of it, particularly in the first half, is excruciatingly funny, and all of it has been brought off in a spirit of burlesque merriment—violent absurdity pushed to the level of flagrancy and beyond. That’s the place where Tarantino is happiest: out at the edge, playing with genre conventions, turning expectations inside out, ginning up the violence to exploitation-movie levels. The film is in two parts: the first half is a mock Western; the second is a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery, set in the deep South and ending in fountains of redemptive spurting blood. “Django” is a crap masterpiece, garrulous and repetitive, rich with jokes and cruelties, including some Old South cruelties that Tarantino invented for himself. It’s a very strange movie, luridly sadistic and morally ambitious at the same time, and the audience is definitely alive to it, revelling in its incongruities, enjoying what’s lusciously and profanely over the top.
What’s even stranger than the movie, however, is how seriously some of our high-minded critics have taken it as a portrait of slavery. Didn’t they notice that Tarantino throws in an “S.N.L.”-type skit about the Ku Klux Klan, who gather on their horses for a raid only to complain petulantly that they can’t see well out of their slitted white hoods? Or that Samuel L. Jackson does a roaring, bug-eyed parody of an Uncle Tom house slave in the second half? Or that the heroine of the movie, a female slave, is called Broomhilda von Shaft? Could Mel Brooks have done any better? (“Lili von Shtupp,” I suppose, is slightly better.) Yes, we are told that Broomhilda’s German mistress gave her the name and taught her German, but Tarantino is never more improbable than when he supplies explanations for his most bizarre fancies. Some of his characters spring from old genre movies, some spring full-blown from the master’s head. None have much basis in life, or in any social reality to speak of. (Remember the Jews who killed Nazis with baseball bats?) Yes, of course, there were killers in the Old West and cruel slave masters in the South—central characters in the movie—but Tarantino juices everything into gaudy pop fantasy. I enjoyed parts of “Django Unchained” very much, but I’m surprised that anyone can take it as anything more than an enormous put-on.