Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," which opened Christmas Day, played well at the DGA screening I attended, as well as the subsequent L.A Academy screening. Audiences are flocking to see it (we'll do the box office numbers on Thursday) and critics love it (89% on Rotten Tomatoes, 80% on MetaCritic). Of course they do–per usual, Tarantino offers up a meaty dish to be savored and interpreted, crammed with movie references and rich performances from a wide range of great character actors. (My review here; Philadelphia critic Carrie Rickey and I debate the movie along with other holiday openers here.)
Definitely check out the "Django" thread at Spike Lee's twitter page: @spikelee. I love the way he engages with his fans, answering questions and throwing out provocations. His take on "Django Unchained" is much as I suspected it would be. He's uncomfortable with the idea of telling a slavery story within the spaghetti western genre. And filmmaker Ava DuVernay wrote me an explanation of why Lee and some others are reluctant to check out the movie themselves (he's not telling anyone not to go see it): the subject matter is just too uncomfortable. I still think Lee has a stronger argument if he actually sees the movie. I'm eager to get his reaction, and I'm not the only one. In some ways Tarantino makes the dicey and horrific subject matter easier to handle via the genre. He's providing a distancing device. A realm of safety. But he also backs off some of the emotion that way.
UPDATE: Historian Henry Louis Gates had no trouble taking Tarantino seriously on "Django." Check out their probing The Root podcast, which digs into what's real and what's exaggerated, the use of violence, the n-word, and Foxx's discomfort with playing a slave. Tarantino also expresses his hatred for western master John Ford, partly because he was willing to play a klansman in "Birth of a Nation." Here's the podcast and the transcript: parts one, two and three.
Here's a review sampling:
Dana Stevens, Slate
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation spaghetti western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, provoked a lot of contradictory feelings in me, including some that don’t usually come in pairs: Hilarity and boredom. Aesthetic delight and physical nausea. Fist-pumping righteousness and vague moral unease.
Of course, provoking intense feelings is what Tarantino’s cinema is all about.
A. O. Scott, The New York Times
The plot is, by Mr. Tarantino’s standards, fairly linear, without the baroque chronology of “Pulp Fiction” or the parallel story lines of “Inglourious Basterds.” But the movie does take its time, and it wanders over a wide expanse of geographic and thematic territory.
In addition to Mr. Tarantino’s trademark dialogue-heavy, suspense-filled set pieces, there are moments of pure silliness, like a gathering of hooded night riders (led by Don Johnson), and a late escapade (featuring Mr. Tarantino speaking in an Australian accent) that perhaps owes more to Bugs Bunny than to any other cultural archetype.
Of course, the realm of the archetypal is where popular culture lives, and Mr. Tarantino does not hesitate to train his revisionist energies on some deep and ancient national legends. Like many westerns, “Django Unchained” latches onto a simple, stark picture of good and evil, and takes homicidal vengeance as the highest — if not the only — form of justice.
David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Django Unchained doesn’t merely hit its marks; it blows them to bloody chunks. It’s manna for mayhem mavens. The cast is hip, but you knew that already — hipsterism is automatically conferred on actors in QT pictures. And though the plot turns are predictable, every scene is apt to wander off into an alley of irrelevance in which comic surprises await — among them a protracted griping session featuring Klansmen who can’t see out their eyeholes. Parts of the film are maniacally funny. Of course, no matter how hard you laugh at Tarantino’s audacity, you have a feeling he’s laughing louder. For all its pleasures, Django Unchained feels too easy, too dead-center in Tarantino’s comfort zone. He’s not challenging himself in any way that matters. He has become his own Yes Man.
Richard Corliss, Time
As in so many Tarantino films, the featured players, especially the villains, get the juiciest roles. Jackson, sprung to stardom in Pulp Fiction, is creepy-conniving terrific as a slave wielding sick power over his kind. DiCaprio, whom Tarantino had first considered for the role eventually taken by Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, takes several pages from the Johnny Depp fop book as the Candie man. Flashing his yellow teeth and waving his cigarette holder like the baton of a conductor leading the Ninth Circle of Hell Symphony Orchestra, DiCaprio is a jaunty, smiling Satan — and the actor’s first role in years where he seems to be enjoying himself. He, Waltz and Jackson are surrounded by a passel of veteran tough guys from the movies the director loved in his video days (Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, M.C. Gainey, Tom Wopat), plus Jonah Hill in that incongruous, endless jape about the bag-masks, and QT himself in two small roles.
Peter Debruge, Variety
The "D" is silent, though the name of "Django Unchained's" eponymous gunslinger sounds like a retaliatory whip across the face of white slaveholders, offering an immensely satisfying taste of antebellum empowerment packaged as spaghetti-Western homage. Christened after a coffin-toting Sergio Corbucci character who metes out bloody justice below the Mason-Dixon line, Django joins a too-short list of slaves-turned-heroes in American cinema, as this zeitgeist-shaping romp cleverly upgrades the mysterious Man in Black archetype to a formidable Black Man. Once again, Quentin Tarantino rides to the Weinsteins' rescue, delivering a bloody hilarious (and hilariously bloody) Christmas counter-programmer, which Sony will unleash abroad.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
The anecdotal, odyssey-like structure of this long, talky saga could be considered indulgent, but Tarantino injects the weighty material with so many jocular, startling and unexpected touches that it’s constantly stimulating. A stellar cast and strong action and comedy elements will attract a good-sized audience internationally, though distaste for the subject matter and the irreverent take on a tragic subject might make some prospective viewers hesitate.
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Django Unchained is literally all over the place. It twists and turns over an unbridled two hours and 45 minutes, giving history (and your stamina) a serious pounding. It limps, sputters and repeats itself. It explodes with violence and talk, talk, talk. Tarantino's characters would be lost in the Twitterverse – there's no end to his tasty dialogue. Not that you'll care. You'll be having too much fun. Django Unchained is an exhilarating rush, outrageously entertaining and, hell, just plain outrageous.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
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…