Review: Django Unchained

Django

After watching Jamie Foxx boldly strut on a chestnut mare with circular-lensed shades through the sunny Mississippi countryside, I find it almost impossible to imagine Wil Smith doing the same without bringing the bulk of Quentin Tarantino’s Western/Southern enterprise crashing down. There is a steely gravitas to Foxx (see also Jarhead, Miami Vice) that works when he evolves to cowboy super-shooter (and instrument of revenge), but more importantly, there is a generous yet unassuming vulnerability when he plays off Christoph Waltz that makes the picture decidedly human amongst all the heroic bloodshed, sweaty mandingo wrestling, horse murder, and flowery language. The look and tone of the film is as grab bag as the range of its cinematic influences. Moments that recall John Ford’s Monument Valley grandeur and snowy echoes of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence sit uneasily against the farcical parody of Birth of A Nation‘s ride of the Klan (feat. Jonah Hill!) or a man being violently torn apart by dogs. Django Unchained may feel like a 10 hour HBO miniseries crushed down to just under 3 hours, but it is a cornucopia of delights and it does what its director does best. That is to say, let great actors have memorable scenes of dialogue (or silence) together, whilst setting the non-acting scenes to exceptionally curated music.

Other than the extreme, and often cartoony, violence in the film and a cameo from original star, Franco Nero, Django Unchained has little to do with the original Django, but rather acts as the best of the unofficial sequels. A living, breathing movie environment for Tarantino to bring his revenge fantasy on American slavery into the conversation in the same way he did for Jews and Hilter in Inglorious Basterds. There is also the matter of bounty hunting – the profession that Django adopts from former German dentist Dr. King Shultz. Played in a decidedly Landa-esque manner (brimming with enthusiasm and linguistic backflips) by Christoph Waltz, Shultz makes his entrence driving a wagon capped with a plaster tooth on a spring, comically swaying. But Shultz has long swapped pulling rotten teeth out of the mouths of men for plugging rotten men with bullets. As much as Django Unchained has race and slavery on its mind, it spares no small amount fair share of screen time on state sponsored murder. It even goes so far as to equate physically, if not morally, the act of bounty hunting with slavery. Both are flesh trades, both are considered legal means of earning a living sanctioned by the state. Django Unchained would make a curious double bill with Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay, particularly in the second half of the film when all the screen time is spent inside plantation estates and manor houses where everyone has the word ‘nigger’ on the tip of their tongue. You will not find two more opposite films on the same subject, however both have complicated notions of honour and hubris.

American cinema has always been a celebration of violence in one form or another from 1932 Scarface to George Romero’s ‘Dead’ Trilogy up to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and the Europeans – the Italians in particular – were always appropriating US genres to their own violent excesses. While Tarantino has almost always played in similar arenas, he’s managed to transcend pure genre by injecting an (often surprising) dose of humanist, feminist, or morally righteous honesty alongside his quest for cinematic ‘cool.’ In Pulp Fiction it was most obvious in the dynamic between cool-Vincent and introspective-Jules. Tarantino’s films tend to be better than the things he is often accused of aping or outright stealing. Yes, I include Death Proof and Kill Bill in this point.

A snowman used for target practice, arterial spray on a white horse upon a the perfect sniper shot in the dark, a well dressed and manicured Leonardo Di Caprio sporting coal-black teeth, Samuel L. Jackson’s bleached curls – one could comb through the film for use of colour and imagery which comment on race and moral clarity. Perhaps this is the modern equivalent of black hats and white hats, and the players in Django Unchained, while anti-heroes, have a clarity as to whether they are good or bad on the terms of the film’s notion of fantasy. It is all so well integrated into the films own sense of cinema, storytelling and all out entertainment that it puts other popular ‘big-ticket’ entertainers James Cameron and Peter Jackson, who recently seem far more focused on technology over telling a surprising story with memorable characters and great scenes, to shame. Who is making cinema in 2012? Quentin Tarantino. That strut at the end of the film, doing high-falutin’ donuts on horseback. Well, that’s as much the filmmaker as the character.

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.

33 Comments

  1. Yep, I like how Qt’s focuses on the legal system of the era. I, and many people,have the connotation that bounty hunters are anarchistic that disturbed law and order in a society. QT flips this notion by showing how bounty hunters operated and were needed in the legal system of a densely populated West and South. A brilliant move, in my opinion.

    Furthermore, the anticlimactic ending is getting a bit of a backlash. I quite like it. I felt that it was necessary for Django’s character development.

    Reply
    • *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS* *SPOILERS*

      I could accept DiCaprio dying early and Samuel L. Jackson taking his place as lead antagonist, but you DON’T have a very bloody gunfight (that rivals the climatic fight of KILL BILL VOL 1) and then go on to continue the film for half an hour.

      Reply
          • As the film goes along, I didn’t have any trouble with the pacing, but yeah, pulling back and looking at the movie like a sin wave and you’ll see some strange inconsistencies with the pacing.

            …if that makes any sense.

          • Speak for yourself — I wasn’t bored for a second and loved the episodic sequences. That’s some of the best stuff in Westerns.

            No problems with the end either. It worked for me because it fit Django’s arc: he needed to save his wife himself, without any help, and waltz through some fire doing it too.

          • Honestly, I’d say just get rid of the ridiculously huge gunfight altogether and continue the story. For me that probably would have worked much better. Or at the very least it would have stopped the first (or maybe second) thing out of people’s mouth as they exit the theater from being, “damn, that was a long movie.”

          • I liked the first half, WIDE_SCREEN spaghetti western stuff. I loved the ‘episodic’ nature, even if I thought the night-time KLAN comedy could have been easily excised, felt more like the scene in the Coen’s OH BROTHER which handled farce better than Django Unchained. I loved the scene where they are by the riverside and there is a herd of Elk going by. Really beautiful.

            I kind of wish that there were more, Django and Djentist go out on Missions together stuff, they really only did this by way of montage in the movie. The scene in the bar where Waltz calls out the Marshall and ends up with the Sheriff, how that plays out is AMAZING, absolutely amazing stuff.

          • I loved the anticlimactic ending. That is how you end a film. The only thing I will cut/reduce are the table conversations.

          • The sheriff scene is predictable though; but Waltz being so devilishly gleeful about it is what makes it great. Likewise, I love that the stakes are almost nonexistent and the only reason for the penultimate shoot out is Schultz’s pride.

            It’s not Tarantino’s best dialogue, by a long shot, but I think structurally it’s right in line with his genre. And I’m happy to defend it.

      • **SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS****SPOILERS**SPOILERS** SPOILERS**

        I wouldn’t say “you DON’T”, but in this case I agree. Sure I liked some of the stuff that comes after the gunfight, but it did feel off-kilter or top heavy or something.

        To be honest, once Waltz and DiCaprio were dead, my interest in the film took a serious nose dive. I wasn’t even much of a fan of the gun fight. I’d take the bar fight in “Desperado” over this one any day – and that movie didn’t even have much character motivation at that point to matter.

        Reply
  2. Rank Qt’s films:
    1. Pulp Fiction
    2. Inglourious Basteds
    3. Reservoir Dogs.
    4. True Romance
    5. Django Unchained
    6. Kill Bill (both volumes)
    7. Jackie Brown
    8. From Dusk till Dawn.
    9. Grindhouse — I need to rewatch this film. Scott Tobias, Halfyard, Andrew James, Cheel, and Goon have all convinced me to reconsider the film.

    Reply
  3. Dear Andrew James,

    Please do not include the Star Wars (Bobba/Jango Fett) /Django Unchained poster mash up in your Monday feature.

    Sincerely,
    Antho42

    Reply
  4. Django will barely make my top ten this year, but it makes it nonetheless. I loved the movie. But there’s a lot to pick apart that doesn’t work as well. Some (SOME) of it reeks of Tarantino trying just a little bit too hard to be Tarantino. And some scenes just fall flat = The Klan scene with Jonah Hill is flat out terrible.

    Reply
  5. Ranking Tarantino is hard to do, very hard to do. I’ll try.

    1. Jackie Brown
    2. Inglorious Basterds
    3. Reservoir Dogs
    4. Pulp Fiction
    **SCRIPT OF TRUE ROMANCE**
    5. Death Proof
    6. Django Unchained
    7. Kill Bill Vol. 1
    8. Kill Bill Vol. 2

    Reply
  6. I guess ranking is a requisite with these things (like Coens and Wes Anderson). Alright, here we go…

    Pulp Fiction
    Inglorious Basterds
    Reservoir Dogs
    Kill Bills
    Django Unchained
    Death Proof
    Jackie Brown

    Reply
  7. I got the Tarantino XX box set for Christmas and I look forward to revisiting his films, many of which I haven’t seen for years.

    So far, I’ve watched Resovoir Dogs (third viewing) and True Romance (first viewing).

    Reply
  8. I might as well pitch in my own preferred Tarantino ranking. I love ‘em all, but if I had to order them, they’d go as follows:

    Kill Bill
    Inglourious Basterds
    Jackie Brown
    Pulp Fiction
    Django Unchained
    Death Proof
    Reservoir Dogs

    Reply
  9. You know, I’ve had a week to reflect on this and I’m still not sure how I feel. I definitely like the movie and I thought the performances were all stellar. With its episodic nature, there were parts that worked really, really well.

    But unlike Inglourious Basterds, which was also episodic, there was a disjointedness to this film which left me unsatisfied overall. I think like Kurt mentioned, it left me longing for more – which, I don’t know, maybe that was QT’s intent.

    Some individual scenes were insanely good though and I appreciated all of the nods to some rather obscure spaghetti westerns which I adore. I’m not always the biggest fan of Foxx, but I think this is my favorite role of his to date. He knocked it out of the park. Waltz was also again proving his ability to create interesting, dynamic characters (with the help of QT’s writing, of course).

    Mostly, I want to see it again. I like it. I like it a lot even. I’m just not sure what left me feeling so uneasy about it afterwards.

    Reply
  10. I enjoyed Django, and in Tarantino’s oeuvre would rank it above Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill movies. I did notice that this time around I could anticipate story beats a lot more than typical with Tarantino scripts. Loved Jackson and DiCaprio, when they were onscreen I was riveted.

    Reply

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