Quentin Tarantino has a problem. It is one entirely of his own making, it has permeated nearly every one of his films (Death Proof being the lone exception), and it is as unavoidable it is pernicious. The problem is that his movies are, for the most part, great. And when an artist’s films are routinely great, what are we to make of one that is merely really, really good?
Tarantino’s last few films have each been in a different genre that he grew up enjoying. Where Kill Bill was his samurai epic, Death Proof his grindhouse flick, and Inglourious Basterds his war movie, this is obviously his Western. While it has all the familiar Western tropes, sherrifs, horses, six-shooters, etc, it is very much a movie of the deep South. The focus here is not on cowboys and Indians, but rather slaves and their owners. Jamie Foxx plays the titular Django, a slave who possesses some knowledge that would be very helpful to German dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz (no relation, though I’ve jokingly referred to him as my distant cousin on occasion). Schultz despises slavery, but he is also a pragmatist, and Django is in a unique position to help him collect a bounty. In exchange for Django’s help in tracking down and killing the Brittle brothers, Schultz will set him free, a bargain which our hero readily accepts. They quickly accomplish this task, but not before a run-in with the delightfully smarmy ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett (Don Johnson. Yes, THAT Don Johnson). Schultz then has a follow-up offer for the newly-freed Django. They’ll spend the winter collecting bounties, and when the snow thaws, they’ll set off to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the vile clutches of slave-trader and Mandingo-fighting promoter Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). Much humor and bloodshed ensues.
What followed is a film that had me laughing and cringing more than any other Tarantino film to date. All of his staples are here, casual, humorous conversations that devolve unexpectedly into explosive violence, buckets and buckets of blood, which has now even taken on an audible quality I never noticed before, almost a ‘gloop’ with every gunshot. The word, “nigger” is used more than his other films, which is quite a feat, but oddly, it seems less jarring. Maybe that’s because while it’s easy to imagine slave-owner Calvin using the word like a comma in front of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), it’s less believable that Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winfield would’ve tolerated Jimmy’s “dead nigger storage” line, whether he was his only partner in the 818 or not. But while this is very much a Tarantino film, it is also very different from his others. There are no noticeable cinematic flourishes, well, apart from one or two super-fast zoom-ins-to-a-close-up-on-Django’s-face. It has the most linear plot since Jackie Brown and there aren’t multiple converging story lines à la Inglourious Basterds. There aren’t any pop culture references, which would’ve been incongruous, and I don’t recall any lingering shots on any of the female characters’ feet. While I wouldn’t describe the film as predictable, it was, well, stable. I never felt like there was some mystery I wasn’t getting. By keeping the point of view focused squarely on Django and Schultz, we lose some of the suspense in wondering how it’ll all work itself out. That said, it all works out in a way that is most satisfying.
The acting here is uniformly good with one unfortunate exception. The first hour of the film is clearly Waltz’s, and he uses it to good avail. His Schultz is gregarious, witty, sly, and deadly, sort of the Bizzarro-version of his Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds. The rest of the film is Foxx’s, and he plays Django with a quiet reserve befitting a proud man who has been profoundly damaged, but not broken, by slavery. DiCaprio imbues Candie with a sense of barely-contained rage but also a level of cowardice. He’s not a person who commits horrible acts himself, but rather, he orders others to commit them. I imagine there were quite a few people like him in the antebellum South. The hard, dirty hands-on work of institutionalizing slavery had already been done. He just continues to profit from that system and hires strong, calloused men to keep the gears of oppression turning. There are a ton of other minor characters here, most nothing more than cameos. Walton Goggins (of course), Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Tom Wopat (wait, what?!), and the aforementioned Don Johnson are all perfectly fine. If there’s one thing Quentin Tarantino does in all his films, though, that I wish he would just quit, it’s acting. I can think of exactly one film where he did a decent job in front of the camera, 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn. Apart from that, it’s always a letdown when he’s on the screen, and it never fails to take me out of the moment, even in such an engrossing film as this. When he shows up in the third act for his obligatory cameo, this time sporting a horrible Australian accent and what I hope is a fake forty-pound gut, it is only to provide one of the most implausible moments in the film. I won’t give anything away except to say that Australians have more reason to be upset about their portrayal in this film than blacks do. Our antipodean brothers can’t really be that gullible, right?
“I cant speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectfu
l to my ancestors. That’s just me…I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.”
The next day he tweeted
American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.
Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of his passing judgement on a film he refuses to see, Lee is just flat out wrong. This film in no way mocks slaves or the institution of slavery. In fact, the villains are portrayed as uniformly evil, almost to a fault. They are for the most part filthy, ill-kept, largely illiterate, and deserving of every bit of violence that comes their way. Django is a hero who, though he doesn’t wear a white hat, has much in common with the heroes of earlier Westerns. He is single-minded of purpose, his cause is righteous, and he’s very, very good with a gun, “a natural,” as Schultz describes him. There’s one scene early on where he questions all the killing he’s doing, but once he gets beyond that, there’s no hesitation. This is a film where slave-owners and those that work for them are unambiguously wrong and deserving of violent, lingering, painful punishment for their actions. In the same way that the climax of Inglourious Basterds rewrote history, allowing Hitler to be punished in a way that his suicide prevented in reality, Django here is allowed to mete out punishment to slave-owning whites in a way not possible outside Tarantino’s universe. Far from disrespecting blacks, it empowers them.
Django Unchained is a film well worth seeing and it has everything I look for, interesting characters, sharp dialogue, and solid direction that’s not too obvious. It’s far and away the most fun I’ve had at a theater this year, and I’ll likely see it a time or two more on the big screen. It’s clearly an instant-buy when released on Blu-ray. Still, it’s not my favorite Tarantino flick. That’s still Pulp Fiction. It’s also not his best. That’d be Kill Bill (especially Vol. 2). Is it great? No, but sometimes really, really good is good enough.
[Django Unchained is currently showing in theaters nationwide.]