My friend Joshua Dixon captures it:
Django Unchained is the first film in which some of the violence has a conscience: some of the treatment the slaves undergo is revolting and harrowing, and suggests that this is more than just a shoot-‘em-up (the same can hardly be said of, for example, the Nazi-scalping in Inglorious Basterds). The problem is that the more cartoonish violence is still there; there are thus two tones going on at once. Some scenes say “Look at this violence, isn’t it awful?’ and then shortly afterwards we’re shown a scene that says, “Look at this violence, isn’t it cool?” The overall effect makes it hard to escape the verdict that DJ is the director’s most uneven film so far.
My thought exactly. I’ve been meaning to say that ever since I saw it, but I now have little to add. It really is the first time in Tarantino’s career that he has filmed this sort of violence. Reservoir Dogs offered aestheticised violence. We can take pleasure in it because it’s sexed-up and it’s occurring in a far-off fictional, amoral universe. Basterds offers moralised violence that we enjoy because it’s retributive and in some dark sense historically justified.
But that scene in the middle of Django where a black man is mindlessly mauled to death by dogs? What does it say about this that even Tarantino couldn’t bring himself to show it on screen? How does this fit his desired tone? It’s like we’re supposed to schizophrenically switch between outrage and laughter in the space of ten minutes. It just wasn’t what we signed up for.
Having said that, its unevenness aside, I enjoyed it a lot, and laughed far more than most in the cinema seemed to. It was trickier to appreciate than his previous films, but I howled loudest at Calvin’s introduction, when DiCaprio is laughing ecstatically and uncontrollably at the sight of two black men being paid to bludgeon one another to death on his living room floor. And then there was his later lecture on how black people have skull indentations to account for their inferiority. People around me seemed to feel awkward about this, but I just felt like the absurdity of racism is best exposed by its being openly documented. And then you have no choice but to laugh at it.
But the film was still a sprawling mess. I have no clue what he was thinking.