For some, Quentin Tarantino, the auteur who gave us Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglorious Basterds, is the epitome of all that is wrong with modern media. Intentionally provocative, at times deliberately transgressive, his films explore themes that are too often taboo within our culture and exploit the discomfort we often feel when such explorations are not constrained within the boundaries of political correctness, or perhaps even good taste.
For others, Tarantino is Steven Spielberg's darker foil, a supremely skilled director who is most comfortable in traditional and familiar narrative genres, but whose talent and vision often elevate and invigorate the stories that have become stale with convention and cliché.
Both sides of that debate will find fodder for their arguments in Django Unchained, a (nearly) three-hour revenge quest/sting caper caked in blood and steeped in dark humor. The story begins when King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, buys the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him identify a particularly valuable bounty. Schultz detests slavery, he explains, but he is willing to use it to his advantage. If Django will help him, he promises to give Django a percentage of his earnings and, eventually, his freedom.
Django turns out to be a natural at the bounty hunter profession—so much so that Schultz makes a deal with him to come on as a partner, promising that once they work for a season, Schultz will help Django find and free his wife. Most of the second half of the film depicts an elaborate con job conceived by Schultz to convince a notorious plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), to sell them Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), without letting on just how much they are willing to pay for her.
Some reviews have complained that the film is too long and the plot too loose, but the early episodes provide important contrasts to the latter half of the film, and Django's decisions need to be documented at various stages of freedom to infuse the film with its moral complexity. Early on Django is a slave and can hardly be held accountable for actions or endeavors undertaken to secure his survival. It is Schultz who is on morally compromised ground as he admits that he finds slavery conceptually repugnant but finds it personally advantageous to have Django in a position where he can be compelled to obey. In the first encounter with bounties, Django is unable to restrain himself from stopping a white man from whipping a slave even though his actions endanger himself and Schultz by revealing their intentions too quickly.
Part of Django's training, then, is to stifle his impulse to immediately intercede, to defer justice or aid, and to frame and make decisions relative to their legality rather than their morality. Nowhere is this underscored more than a scene in which Django acts as a sniper, killing a man plowing a field next to his son. When Django has reservations, Schultz shows him the man's wanted poster and walks him through the legal arguments for the righteousness of the killing. It turns out "killing white folks" for money isn't everything Django expected it to be. At least not at first.