Review: Django Unchained

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It’s clear after watching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, that he missed his calling. He should have lived about sixty or seventy years ago, making Warner Brothers cartoons. Django Unchained is a live-action cartoon, clever and frequently funny, but not very substantial. In fact, I’d say that a cartoon like What’s Opera, Doc? is more of a serious piece of art than Django Unchained.

There have been sings of this. Inglorious Basterds had its cartoonish moments, with Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine essentially a stand-in for Bugs Bunny. Django Unchained also has a Bugs Bunny, this time played by Christoph Waltz. He’s a German bounty hunter in the antebellum South. When we meet him he’s searching for a particular slave, called Django and played by Jamie Foxx.

Waltz’s character is totally self-assured and three or four steps ahead of his enemies. He calmly tells Foxx that he kills people for money, and three overseers that Foxx can identify are on Waltz’s kill list. Once that is accomplished, the two pair up as bounty hunters, but Foxx wants to find his wife, separated from him by sale, and Waltz agrees to help.

Mel Brooks always defended “Springtime for Hitler” by saying that the way to deal with Nazis was to make fun of them. Tarantino tries that here, as the issue of slavery is dealt with a comic interpretation–at least slaveholders are. A long and only mildly amusing scene of proto-Klansmen struggling with the bags they are wearing over their heads is Brooksian, but not as funny. On the other hand, Tarantino deals with the effects slavery has on its victims in a gruesome fashion, as there are medieval torture implements, a slave is put into a box in the ground to suffer from heat, and another is torn apart by dogs. The tone is thus wildly uneven, and while I have no problem with a film that includes both comedy and horrific tragedy, it demands a lighter touch than Tarantino’s.

What is perhaps most unforgivable about this film, which I consider to be Tarantino’s worst, is that it is frequently boring. He uses many tropes from the Spaghetti Western, even recycling old music scores and imagery of that genre, but they ring hollow. We are again left to wonder if Tarantino has anything original to say, or anything to say at all, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of the lesser genres. Sword and sandals may be next, as Tarantino focuses on “Mandingo fighting,” a pastime of Southerners that involves watching slaves fight each other. In essence, it’s an updated form of gladiatorial combat. Though this was a practice in those days, the term Mandingo fighting was not–this is a nod to the exploitation picture of the same name.

There is stuff to like here. Robert Richardson’s photography is top-notch, though Tarantino’s use of the camera is often baffling–why the fetishistic look at Waltz drawing a mug of beer? But the shot of a patch of cotton being sprayed with blood may be the most definitive representation of the Civil War I’ve ever seen.

Leonardo DiCaprio, as the evil plantation owner who owns Foxx’s wife (Kerry Washington, who doesn’t have much to do except speak German) overacts with panache. I liked the appropriate taciturn performance by Foxx, and Waltz is a delight, with a huge vocabulary. A lot of faces show up as surprises, such as Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Franco Nero (the original Django) and Tarantino himself, attempting and failing at an Australian accent.

The most notable performance is Samuel L. Jackson as the dean of DiCaprio’s house slaves. He’s an old man, and instead of fighting for his race, he chooses DiCaprio, knowing that’s where his security is. I’ve read of his character as being an Uncle Tom, but that is an offensive term and is inappropriate anyway. Jackson’s character reminds me of the Posca, the slave and confidant of Julius Caesar on the show Rome. Jackson may be a slave, but he speaks up to DiCaprio, offering him counsel. This characterization is the bravest thing about the film.

There has been discussion of Tarantino’s use of the N-word, which is silly since certainly Southerners of 1858 freely used that word. I’m not sure the word “motherfucker” was in common use then, but neither was Jim Croce or rap music, which is used on the soundtrack.

The bottom line is that Django Unchained is an only intermittently entertaining film that is self-indulgent, over long, and cartoonish in its approach to history, as well as its gore. The body total is high and bloody. It appears Tarantino is running on empty.

My grade for Django Unchained: C.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

13 responses »

  1. As for the swearing, I thought Deadwood explained ad nauseum how there would be copious usage of the word ‘fuck’ in all its forms in the old west. Had something to do with rebellion of the old ‘Victorian East’…or something like that.

  2. Deadwood didn’t “explain” anything–it’s a fictional show that took liberties. There is a spirited argument about whether the words cocksucker and motherfucker were in use in those days. Certainly those men were profane, but the word “motherfucker,” meaning a bad person, goes only back to the 1920s, and I’m not sure it was used in Deadwood (cocksucker certainly was). I think the use by Jackson in this movie was Tarantino’s way of letting one of his acting company use a familiar phrase–sort of like the way on the old show Good Times they always managed a way to get Jimmie Walker to say “Dynomite!”

  3. If that’s the way you interpreted it, it enforces your view of Tarantino not having anything really ‘original’ to say, or if these are simply the same characters from all the other films, just in different form, and oh, no…is he just turning into a much more brilliant Kevin Smith?

  4. He starts by referencing a gestapo joke…that’s a bit more harsh than saying he’s a more brilliant Kevin Smith.

    There are big talking showdowns where you can close your eyes and just rock to the rhythms of the talk.

    That sounds like a pretty fucking excellent time at the theater to me…

    And perhaps a better point that that excellent review brings up is…maybe it’s not that Tarantino lacks the wit to make the poetry he did in Pulp Fiction, but maybe it’s because he wasn’t the sole writer of Pulp Fiction.

  5. Taking my theory on how Tarantino is perceived within the film community, I decided to check what the films he directed fully rated on IMDB. I had a hunch that ‘Jackie Brown’ would be the lowest rated, not because of the quality (I liked the film myself) but because it had relatively few of the signature and self-conscious touches that QT is known for.

    And so it proved with JB the only film not reaching 8.0 average. This means that all his other films are in the all-time Top 250 range! I think the more self-indulgent he becomes, the more passionate and highly rated his films are by a lot of filmgoers.

  6. So I’ve spent a couple days trying to think of what I thought of this.
    In regards to your review, I guess I only have two things. Well, three.
    1. Yes, Foxx was great.
    2. You’re right, beyond flashes of brilliant cinematic flourish (and some baffling camera decisions, as you said), the film has nothing to say.
    3. And above anything else, it’s quite interesting to see Tarantino’s first horror film.

    Beyond that…this was one nasty film.
    Oh, and I love horses.
    Oh, and I have a very serious issue with Jackson’s character…but I’m not sure how I would broach it. And if it’s a conscious statement by Tarantino, (or any filmmaker) well…I would find it kinda troubling.
    And I really think it’s the worst use of music in a film I’ve ever seen.
    The scene with Tarantino isn’t just bad, it feels like a bonus feature that was mistakenly placed into the movie.
    He relegates bit players that he loves to use, and lets the camera linger on them, so you can understand that the bit player with half her face covered is the bit player he loves…and he does nothing with the bit player. Why not make that bit player ‘moonlight’, and make it interesting, instead of just-I don’t know.

    One thing I like very much, and one thing that made all that came before it palatable, was Django’s perfectly-played wink to his wife.

    I don’t think we’ve been in more agreeance on a film.

  7. And yes, Jackson’s character was a ‘Plantation Posca’, as seen in his iteration in HBO’s Rome…but I can’t shake the, to me, very disturbing thing about his character that I can’t figure out how I want to say it…

  8. Okay……….so I’m gonna broach this, and I’m gonna do it the best I can. You all hate me anyway, so it won’t make much difference how you feel about this, but it truly is something that’s bothered me, so here goes:

    I understand Jackson’s character was old. And a cur. And a very, very evil man. (He was not the best performance by far, though). Now, in the scene when Waltz and FOxx are riding up to Candyland and Jackson is out on the porch, we only see Jackson from afar and not very well and then, the very first close-up we get of Jackson is when he sees Foxx riding in and well, we see his makeup and…well, the rounded lower jowels, the protruding lower lip…the makeup…I gasped at that first closeup. For after just watching a black man be torn apart by dogs (and making the two white men in the carriage the only people who show any disgust – I’m fully aware that was for the story, but it doesn’t negate that fact)……..we get our first view of the evil black man who sides with the white man, and he looks like…………….a lower species. Now, again, I know I will get shit for this, but I was severely offended by the first view of Jackson, and whether I have any right to be or not, I don’t know, but casting one of the baddest mother fuckers on earth as the baddest motherfucker in the movie and then putting that makeup on him not only insults a certain group, it insults the entire moviegoing population and calls into question what a filmmaker believes is ‘grindhouse’ and when you just want to say ‘man, this is offensive’.
    I hope I said this right.
    Thoughts?

  9. I think the more self-indulgent he becomes, the more passionate and highly rated his films are by a lot of filmgoers.

    To be fair, here, there was a major concensus among many critics and filmgoers that he ‘changed film vernacular’ with Pulp Fiction. Many believe he not only reinvigorated cinema but turned it over, had his way with it, slapped it on the ass and said ‘you’ll be back for more’. If I remember correctly there was also a blurb in there about how no one has done more to ‘enunciate the language of cinema’ or somesuch since Orson Welles. I mean…
    So if that same community begins to like him even more the MORE self-indulgent he gets, well, then, that is only natural in that he’s controlling that same cinema for his own ends.
    I am not in that camp.
    I am firmly with Slim on this one. He’s out of tricks. He got me with Basterds, which I loved so very much, and lost me pretty deeply with Django.

  10. To be fair, here, there was a major concensus among many critics and filmgoers that he ‘changed film vernacular’ with Pulp Fiction. Many believe he not only reinvigorated cinema but turned it over, had his way with it, slapped it on the ass and said ‘you’ll be back for more’. If I remember correctly there was also a blurb in there about how no one has done more to ‘enunciate the language of cinema’ or somesuch since Orson Welles. I mean…
    So if that same community begins to like him even more the MORE self-indulgent he gets, well, then, that is only natural in that he’s controlling that same cinema for his own ends.

    yeah, that seems a pretty apt analysis of all the QT love.

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