By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
If an unknown filmmaker had come out of the blue with “Django Unchained,” it’s possible we’d be wondering about the director’s sanity. Because what sort of lunatic would make a movie like this?
The answer is, of course, Quentin Tarantino. No one else would have, could have, possibly dreamed up this mad movie fantasia, but then that pretty much describes Tarantino’s entire career.
Like his 2009 “Inglourious Basterds,” the new one is a wish-fulfillment version of history. Set pre-Civil War America, it creates a scenario in which an escaped slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) might execute revenge against a plantation owner (an unusually animated Leonardo DiCaprio) who holds Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) in captivity.
Getting to that point will require a longish 165 minutes of looping, winding storytelling, ranging from shocking violence to “Blazing Saddles”-style humor. The wackiest example of the latter is a sequence involving a posse of hood-wearing vigilantes who must put their attack on hold while they discuss how difficult it is to see out of the little eyeholes in the hoods. Perhaps that’s Tarantino’s answer to “Birth of a Nation.”
Django is liberated from a brutal slavekeeper by an itinerant German bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, the Oscar-winner from “Inglourious”). Schultz makes a bargain: He’ll grant Django his legal freedom if he spends a winter helping Schultz claim bounties on wanted men.
Deal. This plot is fairly simple, as many revenge fantasies are. Yet Tarantino seems less interested in riling up the audience into a lather — as those grindhouse movies he cherishes were so good at doing — as he is in upending our expectations.
The film is laced with references to other movies, beginning with the title. “Django” was a 1966 spaghetti western that Tarantino taps for music and other cues. Its star was Franco Nero, who gets a rather laborious cameo here.
Amidst all the goofiness, Tarantino deploys his talent for sustained, suspenseful and wonderfully talky scenes. (Christoph Waltz is especially glourious — er, glorious — at the dialogue sequences.) A moment shared by Django and Schultz as they peer down from a hill at a potential target is philosophical in a way both thoughtful and funny.
And there’s a great scene involving a cave and a campfire, in which the nature of storytelling itself is elucidated. A scene like that won’t be included when people mention the movie’s horrifying explosions of violence, or its wildly risky deployment of a calculating plantation slave (Samuel L. Jackson, kind of brilliant).
Because one walks away from “Django Unchained” reeling from the audacity of it all, it’s a little challenging to rate the film in any definitive way. It’s not a western or a parody or an homage or an exploitation picture, but a combination of those all things. We call it a Quentin Tarantino movie — and, yes, the man has become his own film genre.
“Django Unchained” (3½ stars)
A crazy offering from Quentin Tarantino, about a pre-Civil War slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to go after a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). This one’s a typical Tarantino brew of violence, humor and homages to other movies, and it detonates its best sequences with regularity, if not brevity (it runs 165 minutes).
Rated: R for violence, language, subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Thornton Place, Varsity, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.