Quentin Tarantino, you have gone too far.
That a line still existed for a director who scalped Nazis in "Inglourious Basterds" becomes clear when "Django Unchained" crosses it.
Set in a depraved South that's antebellum and also greatly in need of antibiotics, "Django" is a revenge fantasy against slave owners akin to Tarantino's "Inglourious" revenge fantasy against Nazis.
But "Django" saves its most gruesome scenarios for its victims, the slaves. These moments are so shocking they caused audible gasps at the screening I attended.
Tarantino presumably crosses the line of what's acceptable to show or imply on screen because he wants to illustrate the cruelties endured by slaves during one of the most shameful periods in U.S. history. But in "Django," he merges that history with exploitation films like "Mandingo," then ups the ante.
Tarantino is a daring, respected, Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Pulp Fiction") and Oscar-nominated director ("Pulp" and "Inglourious") who never shed his fanboy younger self the one who worked in a video store and worshipped B-grade genre films.
He is the most audacious of today's top American filmmakers and also the least able to know when to quit. This condition is evident not just in scenes like one in "Django" depicting two slaves forced to fight to the death, but in Tarantino's blanketing of the film with the n-word.
Yet "Django" also is too well-acted and too fun for long stretches to be dismissed as just gratuitous. Tarantino and his cast create singular characters as the film, named after the 1966 Sergio Corbucci movie "Django," paying loving homage to spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and '70s. "Django Unchained" also inspires a sense of justice in its early scenes by letting us witness a slave being freed from his shackles and then be listened to, and respected.
"Django Unchained" starts with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, from "Inglourious Basterds") intercepting a group of slaves and their captors in dead-of-night Texas a few years before the Civil War. Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter and an enlightened German national, seeks out Django (Jamie Foxx) because the slave can identify some bounty-hunting targets who worked as plantation overseers.
Schultz (sort of) purchases Django, after much bloodshed, promising to set Django free after their mission is complete. He feels guilty to "own" a man, he tells Django, but it also suits his purposes temporarily.
The chatty Schultz serves as voice of reason and quasi-narrator at the film's start, explaining his every action to Django as they go. Waltz shows the same amiable manner and verbal dexterity he displayed in his Oscar-winning role as a Nazi in "Inglourious." Here, though, he's heroic.
As this educated man from the continent upbraids ignorant white Southerners he encounters, Waltz represents a kind of apology to Germans for "Inglourious." Not all Germans are bad, Tarantino is telling us.
Waltz is a joy to watch, and he seems more like the lead than Foxx, a surprisingly mild presence in "Django." His character's initial hesitancy to show personality is understandable, since Django has been dehumanized for so long. But Foxx underplays Django enough throughout that Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears as a plantation owner, and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a duplicitous slave, also eventually outshine him.
Schultz frees Django from slavery and takes him on as a bounty-hunting partner, after Django displays great marksmanship.
In following their travels, Tarantino revels in wide-screen landscapes and in goofy soundtrack choices like using the 1973 Jim Croce song "I Got a Name" as an empowerment anthem for Django. Tarantino injects plenty of late 1960s and early '70s references into the movie's 1860 setting, including a wintry section reminiscent of Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller."
Schultz befriends Django and wants to help him find his wife (Kerry Washington, from TV's "Scandal," given too little to do here). She is a German-speaking slave named Broomhilda von Shaft, and she and Django were forcibly separated. That's right, von Shaft.
"Django" follows Django and Schultz throughout the film, in a linear approach unusual for Tarantino, who often plays with multiples narratives and time frames. Yet "Django" rarely flows, despite the simplified structure. It feels episodic and then, about two hours into its nearly three-hour run time, flabby. The snowy scenes, for example, are interesting but not necessary.
Though it has space for them, "Django" lacks those signature Tarantino scenes that go on for 15 or 20 minutes yet maintain an excruciating degree of tension, such as the farmhouse scene in "Inglourious."
Most of the tension in "Django" comes not from wondering what will happen next, but how far Tarantino will take it when it happens. That's unease, not anticipation.
The movie is so long that DiCaprio gives an almost lead-length performance as Calvin Candie, a Mississippi plantation owner to whom DiCaprio lends surface charm and insidious streaks of sadism and paternalism.
DiCaprio so often plays heroes, and plays them admirably. Tarantino taps that other, smaller part of the actor mostly absent on screen since 1995's "The Basketball Diaries" the part that's a punk.
DiCaprio performs a creepy pas de deux with Jackson, who plays Stephen, a slave who runs Candie's house. Stephen believes he has carved out a safe place for himself on the plantation by providing comic relief for Candie and snitching on other slaves.
This Stepin Fetchit-ed, Stockholm Syndromed character goes against everything we know of Jackson's persona, established by Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and unchallenged since, as the baddest dude in movies.
The fear, anger and betrayal in Jackson's eyes, when Stephen feels his place is threatened, says more about the cruelties of slavery than the ultra- violent, sickening passages of "Django Unchained."
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rated R (strong, graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity)