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.