12/28/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Django Unchained : Tarantino at His Best and Worst

Django Unchained represents the best and the worst of Quentin Tarantino. The film is replete with his signature mix of clever, inventive dialogue, fresh cinematic techniques, gripping drama, and extreme violence. As entertainment, no doubt the film will succeed with many audiences. But as a work of art -- which surely is what Tarantino aspires to -- it leaves much to be desired.

The story revolves around a collaboration between two improbable characters. One is a German dentist traveling around Texas in a suit and tie and a horse and buggy, working as a bounty hunter. (His horse nods and whinnies on cue whenever he is introduced to strangers.) The other is the slave Django who agrees to lead the dentist to a trio of brothers working as overseers on a plantation, in spite of a large bounty on their heads.

The improbability appears in the opening sequence, when the dentist rather magically materializes in the middle of a forest to accost a group of slaves being led through the woods in the dead of night. There the dentist discovers Django, and proceeds to shoot the two slave-holders in spite of the rifles already aimed at him.

This bit of fortuitous gun work is repeated innumerable times throughout the movie. Bullets are flying every few minutes, but they always miss Django and the dentist, and they always hit everyone else, with gaudy spurts of blood to mark the event.

Eventually, the improbabilities pile up to a point of no return. We don't quite notice it at first, because the episodes of violence are so raw and uncompromising they lend a sense of reality to what is in essence a fantasy. The slave-owning world of the pre-Civil War South offers unparalleled opportunities for scenes of sadistic cruelty, and Tarantino exploits these opportunities to the nth degree. This enables him to sustain his flights of fancy far beyond what would otherwise be believable.

Ultimately, therefore, Tarantino runs afoul of Coleridge's dictum that any successful work of art requires of the audience a "willing suspension of disbelief." From the moment we enter the theater, we know it is all going to be just a movie; but for the movie to work we have to suspend disbelief, put aside the unreality, and enter into that world.

In the end, Tarantino denies us that opportunity. Even at the moments of greatest dramatic effect, we can't quite forget that it is Tarantino's particular vision that is being shown on the screen. As if to underscore his ubiquitous presence, he himself plays a minor role at the end of the film.

It has been widely reported that Spike Lee refuses to see this film on grounds that it uses the "n-word" excessively and does not treat the horrors of slavery with sufficient respect. Tarantino is said to have replied that Lee would have to stand on a chair to kiss his ass. Neither director distinguished himself with this exchange, but in the eyes of this 21st century white man, Tarantino's depiction of the brutality of slavery leaves little to the imagination.

The eminent critic and director Peter Bogdanovich described Tarantino as the most influential director of his generation. If that is the case, it is not necessarily to the credit of Tarantino's generation. No matter how much blood and gore he splatters around, Tarantino's vision of the moral universe is ultimately not convincing.