Django Unchained – A Review

Last night, many children across the land drifted off to sleep, dreaming of all the goodies bestowed upon them by Old Saint Nick. Parents sat down to relax after a long night of wrapping presents, only to see their hours of preparation and assembly rendered moot in a ten minute haze Christmas morning. Families enjoyed reuniting with loved ones, near and far, who came together for some eggnog, cookies and to participate in myriad traditions.

And in Albany, NY, Heather had visions of killing some slave owners.

Because despite the fact that I had a wonderful Christmas with my family, the present I was most looking forward to receiving was coming from a man that I had never met but had long admired. The long wait was over – Quentin Tarantino’s newest film was finally opening. While other people anticipated the arrival of Santa, I have spent the last few months counting down the days until Django Unchained would arrive. And even though it was Christmas, I had no doubt in my mind that I would find myself at an opening night screening.

To say that I am in the tank for Tarantino is an understatement; I am an avowed Tarantino disciple and his films are heavily represented in my favorite movies of all time. I love his snappy dialogue and innovative storytelling. It’s pretty hard for him to do anything wrong in my eyes. But even I was a little concerned about Django Unchained. My first reservation was that I had built this movie too much in my head and it would never live up to my expectation; months of following every casting change and production rumor may have made me a little too invested in the film. He had yet to really disappoint me – though I will admit that Death Proof isn’t one of my favorites – but that could just mean that he was overdue for a misstep. I don’t particularly like Jamie Foxx; I think he did a fine job as Ray Charles, but that performance seems more of an aberration. I haven’t been particularly impressed with anything he has done before and since. His performance in Ray was more about impersonation than anything else. I find Foxx the person kind of annoying and insufferable; he has a swagger that I’m not sure he has really earned. So a film with him in the lead wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk for me. I’m also not a huge fan of spaghetti westerns, which was the genre du jour for Django Unchained; this in and of itself wasn’t a huge issue, as I generally am not as enamored with the various film genres that he has played with over the years. I can’t say that I had even seen a grindhouse film before Death Proof/Planet Terror and I had only a basic knowledge of Kung Fu films before Kill Bill. Tarantino had incorporated elements of spaghetti westerns in some of his earlier movies, but with Django Unchained he was more fully embracing the motif. I was less worried about the subject matter per se, though any time a movie is about race there is the potential for controversy or misinterpretation if it isn’t handled just right. Director Spike Lee had announced that he wouldn’t be seeing the film because he felt it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors.

And while I don’t know that Django Unchained is going to ever go down as one of my favorite Tarantino movies – it’s going to be hard to ever displace Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs – but I did enjoy it immensely. It wasn’t always easy to watch, but I don’t think a movie about slavery should be. The acting was spectacular across the board and even with an almost three hour run time, I was constantly entertained. Perhaps not the most traditional way to spend my Christmas evening, but it was still a jolly good time.

Django Unchained is the spiritual sister to Tarantino’s last movie, Inglourious Basterds. Both are revenge fantasies where a mistreated group is able to exact vengeance on their enemies; In Basterds, a troop of Jewish soldiers were able to kill a bunch of Nazis and in Django Unchained it is a former slave (Foxx) that is able to seek retribution against slave owners. Django is able to get into the revenge business when he is purchased by a German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christopher Waltz). Schultz needs Django to help him identify a trio of slave owners that he is currently pursuing; in exchange for Django’s assistance, Schultz will give him his freedom. The two form an unlikely friendship and Schultz agrees to help Django free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a particularly brutal plantation, run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing against type).

Tarantino films are always pretty brutal; this is the guy, after all, that made his bones as a director with a film that includes this scene

and his films have only become more violent with time. But there were a few scenes in Django Unchained that I had a tough time sitting through, and I’m not shrinking violet when it comes to on-screen violence. I have seen more than one movie where a person cuts out their own tongue.  But at least twice I found myself very uncomfortable with what I was watching. I think that unlike the usual mayhem that appears in Tarantino movies, the brutality that I was watching was based in history. Slaves were treated like animals and often received inhuman punishments at the hands of their owners and overseers. Most films about this era tend to shy away from being this graphic; allusions are made to the violence, but it is rarely actually depicted. So even though there were scenes in Django Unchained that I struggled with, I am glad that they were there. I should have to struggle with them. Tarantino used them sparingly so you didn’t become desensitized to them. I think that they were an essential component to the film; if you want to truly identify with Django and his rage, you need to fully comprehend what he has witnessed and had to endure. These scenes are meant to be horrifying and they in no way are glamorous or gratuitous; if you find them to be so, that says more about you than the film.

Django Unchained does not shy away from the use of the n word. In total, it must be uttered over 100 times. That also took some getting used to for me; it’s a repugnant word that always makes me bristle, but it was historically accurate in its usage. Slave owners wouldn’t have hesitated to use it. It was unfortunately a common word in the lexicon of the 1850s. It’s harsh and hateful and it is meant to be.  I don’t think he could have made this film without it; paired with the violence, it sets the tone of the time period and is a reminder that no matter how much we think we understand how bad things were, we really have no idea. I had expected the word to be used a lot, but it still made me feel ill at ease. The violence and terminology don’t make Django Unchained the most accessible film, but if you can see past them it really is quite outstanding .

The acting in Django Unchained is superb. Jamie Foxx won me over almost immediately. He is a suitable hero for this film; he has rage, but he also has a heart. He is driven by the love of his wife and though he has been given little reason to feel any empathy for the men who he and Schultz are chasing, killing one of the men in front of the man’s son gives him pause. He is not a monster, but he also doesn’t shy away from taking another person’s life. Waltz continues to appear to be born to work with Tarantino; he was phenomenal as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds and his performance in Django Unchained proves that was no fluke. Waltz just has a way with Tarantino’s dialogue. It’s really a pleasure to watch and I hope that they continue to partner in the future. They bring out the best in each other. DiCaprio was outstanding as the amoral and cruel plantation owner Candie. While I have long been an admirer of DiCaprio’s work, I wasn’t 100% sure if he could pull off this role. He’s not usually the straight up bad guy. I needn’t have been concerned as DiCaprio turns in a fabulous performance. He is truly awful and he managed to disappear into the role once I adjusted to seeing him in this light. Samuel L. Jackson is a revelation as Candie’s loyal house slave. If anything, Jackson’s role is even more unexpected than DiCaprio’s. Jackson gets to utter his trademark “mother-er” on more than one occasion, but seeing him play a man who assists the slave owners in their brutality and cruelty was a shock.

Though there is no doubt that Django Unchained is a rough film, it is also very funny. Tarantino mixes the tones very well and the audience was laughing so hard at some points in the film that it was difficult to hear the next few lines. There are moments of silliness and some of the violence is so pulpy that it isn’t as hard to sit through. There is also some kind of vicarious thrill in seeing the bad guys get their deserved comeuppance. After making it through some of the harsher moments of the film, there is real catharsis in the resulting carnage. You wish that some of the characters could die multiple times for the sins that they have committed. Somehow death just doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

Some other thoughts:

  • I was really surprised at how many people were at the theater on Christmas night. I knew that this was a big release, but the cinema was packed for the 8 pm show. Mostly a male crowd, but one of the more racially diverse audiences that I’ve seen in a long time.
  • It’s always a pleasure when Walter Goggins shows up, even if he is playing a terrible person. He’s always good in whatever he’s in and I look forward to Justified returning for its fourth season in January so I can see him on a weekly basis.
  • Don Johnson also has a minor role as a plantation owner named Big Daddy; he may not be on screen that much, but he is really fantastic in his limited time. Tarantino has a knack for knowing how to use actors and Django Unchained is no exception.
  • I was unaware how long the film was before I got to the theater; when I looked online the run-time was listed as 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it clocks in much closer to 3 hours. That being said, it didn’t feel like three hours. The time flew by and I can’t think of much that should have been edited out of the film. There aren’t a lot of wasted moments in Django Unchained.
  • Look for Jonah Hill to turn up in a very unexpected place.
  • There is some beautiful cinematography throughout the film.
  • Tarantino has said that Django Unchained is the second installment in an unofficial thematic trilogy that started with Basterds. I am curious what the final chapter will feature; I’d be interested in seeing his conception of some suffragettes opening a can of whoop ass on the men who have oppressed them.

I really enjoyed Django Unchained and while it is ultimately a mash-up of a spaghetti western and a revenge film it still had some very interesting things to say and was filled with really fantastic acting. Tarantino continues his winning streak with this film. While it is occasionally difficult to watch, I think it needs to be in order to be effective. The film is in no way a downer; there are more than enough laughs to keep things light when needed and seeing people get what they have coming to them never felt so good. If you like Tarantino’s filmography, especially Inglourious Basterds, than I don’t think there is anything in Django Unchained that you can’t handle; if you don’t like his other movies you probably weren’t going to see this one anyway. You kind of either like Tarantino or you don’t. I was more than satisfied with Django Unchained, even if it was perhaps the most un-Christmassy movie ever released.

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One thought on “Django Unchained – A Review

  1. javaj240 says:

    I so want to see this movie. I actually saw “Lincoln” (finally) on Christmas Day…Walter Goggins shows up there, too.

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