Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds) is a bounty hunter in the American West and South in 1858, just three years before the start of the Civil War. He seeks out Django (Jamie Foxx, Horrible Bosses) because Django can identify the Brittle Brothers, Schultz’s latest quarry. Schultz offers Django a deal: $25 for each of the Brittle Brothers bagged and his freedom. Django accepts, and proves his worth to Schultz as a partner as the pair bag the Brittles and evade proto-KKK members. Upon hearing what Django wants to do with his freedom-travel to Mississippi to find out where his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, Miracle at St. Anna) was sold and free her-Schultz offers Django another deal. Django will become Schultz’s partner for two years, giving him a chance to learn the bounty hunting trade, and Schultz will help Django find and free his wife when the two years are over.
When the time comes the men find out that Broomhilda has been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island), a Francophile who owns Candyland, one of the biggest plantations in the state. Candie is also involved in underground “Mandingo” fights, and it is through this interest that Schultz seeks to get Candie to willingly and legally sell Broomhilda. Schlutz presents himself as a man eager to get into the game, and to overpay for a fighter to do it, while Django will pose as his adviser: a black slaver who knows the fight game. That’s the plan, but it’s a dangerous game to play, and the men fail to take into consideration Schultz’s conscience or Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1), Candie’s head house slave…
Before we start, let me lay this on you now: there are spoilers ahead, and they aren’t labelled. Beware!
When word of Django Unchained came out, my first reaction was disbelief, followed by anger. It seemed strange indeed to make what Quentin Tarantino (From Dusk Till Dawn) is calling a “Southern”, much less as a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns. Quentin toying with one of my childhood favorite genres made me uncomfortable, but setting one in the days of slavery seemed to open up cans of worms that were better left unopened, particularly by Quentin Tarantino.
While many seem convinced that Death Proof is genuinely feminist and Inglorious Basterds was a liberating fantasy where Jews are finally depicted on-screen killing the living crap out of not only Nazis, but also Hitler, my reactions were decidedly more mixed. Certainly I didn’t “get” the feminist message of Death Proof that many did; it felt like a QT version of films like Acts of Vengeance, that tried to have their rape revenge cake and eat it too, spending a lot of time objectifying women before a climax killing of the bad guys “empowers” those same female characters. With Inglorious Basterds my issues were more to do with it feeling too flippant, although the idea of inventing a U.S. policy to commit war crimes to avenge war crimes felt especially sour as we embraced torture as an official policy. Our eschewing torture for more effective information gathering from Nazi prisoners is something we should remember more. More importantly, if Tarantino meant for a message to get across in his setting the climax in a cinema, at a screening of a Nazi propaganda film that indulges in the same kind of violent heroics that American action films (including the one we were watching) indulge in, it didn’t work for me. Everything seemed muddled. At the time my response was that I’d need to watch it a second time if I were to review it.
Django Unchained promised to be cut from the same cloth, forming a fantasy revenge trilogy in which Quentin imagined the revenge of wronged groups (women, Jews, African-Americans) on those who wronged them (Men, Nazis, Slave Owners). I read articles in which Quentin bashed John Ford (I expected the attacks on his depiction of Native Americans, I was surprised he brought in Ford acting as an extra in The Birth of a Nation) and praised William Witney, a journeyman director who ended a career of Westerns and serials and Tarzan movies with Darktown Strutters, a Blaxpo comedy fantasy which Tarantino admires (but which felt pretty loathsome to me). I read of Quentin’s plans for still more revenge movies, including Killer Crow in which African-American soldiers mutiny during WWII and kill their way to freedom in Switzerland, which seems to denigrate the memory of some damned fine people, who faced racism and responded with heroics. I discussed the whole phenomena of Quentin Tarantino: White Male Avenger of Minorities with several friends, though I must say this: as a member of no oppressed group, and someone who hasn’t ever faced institutional discrimination, I don’t really feel qualified to say if QT’s revenge fantasies are satisfying to those that can identify with this discrimination, or if they feel like Tarantino has done well in his chosen role. It’s not my place to judge, but it feels odd, and sad if we’ve indeed reached a point in the industry where this is the only way this kind of film can be made. In any case, I went into Django Unchained bracing for another evening out where my friends and the audience enjoyed the movie while I privately stewed.
Happily that’s not what happened. The period setting removed enough of QT’s trademark “movie characters talking about movies” that I wasn’t constantly distracted. There are, of course, plenty of references in Django Unchained to other movies, through the use of their soundtracks, stunt casting*, scenes, names, and more. The actors are largely up to the task of speaking Tarantino’s dialogue without seeming forced, and overly elaborate talk seems more appropriate for a 19th century dandy. Most importantly, both the Western and the antebellum South have long had elaborate mythologies attached to them, and well established cinematic conventions. True, Quentin brings in the ugly truth of slavery and the atrocities committed to sustain it, but he does so largely factually, at least as far as torture, murder, and other crimes are concerned. When reading defenses of Django Unchained that claimed that it should not be judged historically, I felt it was a cop-out by film nerds who didn’t want to lose any enjoyment from their favorite’s latest, but there really is merit to that idea; we have a mythical South and West and it is those lands that the film rides through. If we previously saw it in its glossy Gone with the Wind form, here is that same mythic South twisted to show some of the real horrors underneath. Of course, that worked for me-a white man who hasn’t spent a lot of time studying the actual history of either time period, but has watched a lot of Westerns, so Quentin’s use of the myths may offend others.
In any case, the film’s story follows a standard “hero’s journey” arc, with Django gaining his freedom, learning the ways of his mentor, facing the worst of his past and eventually triumphing. Quentin even calls attention to it (and the fairy tale nature of his film) by having Waltz tell us the story of Brunhilde and her rescue by Siegfried. This is an individual’s story. Broomhilda barely has a character, let alone the countless nameless slaves that Django doesn’t free and isn’t helped by. Whether this is a fault or not is certainly in the mind of the viewer; there could be no happy ending with Django riding off into the sunset with a free Broomhilda if he gained her freedom by leading a violent slave revolt…the best that could be hoped for in that situation would an escape through the Underground Railroad that would leave the leads on the run for the rest of their lives and poor, not a super hero bounty hunter and his wife.
Still, the dialogue about Django being the “One in Ten Thousand” who stands up and fights rankled; as one historian pointed out, the slave society of the South deeply feared slave rebellions large and small, and hundreds of thousands of former slaves (and freeborn) joined the Union during the Civil War for the very purpose of fighting back and ending slavery (a big thanks to The Cultural Gutter for bringing the article to my attention). Others have pointed out that the originators of the “exceptional” label for Django are, in fact, racists, racists who want to identify him as an exception, not an example, for their own protection. It’s impossible to deny that yes, this is the case, but the film doesn’t do a lot to contradict Calvin and Stephen on the point. We see no one inspired by Django, taking up his example, but then, the film is already nearly 3 hours long. Django Unchained is trafficking in myth, not fact, so perhaps it is forgivable, for dramatic purposes to keep Django as the exceptional superhero, but part of me (the part that Americans would ease off the damned hero idea once in a while and show some collective action) wants more.
The performances of the principles are good to great (many have already sung Samuel L. Jackson, Waltz and DiCaprio’s praises, but Foxx also deserves credit for showing his character’s change during his hero’s journey), and some of the supporting cast are quite good as well. I was particularly pleased to see Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), of all people, as Candie’s toady of a lawyer, Walton Goggins (Predators) is his usual despicable self as Candie’s chief goon, as is James Remar (Quiet Cool) in two separate roles. Bruce Dern’s (The Cowboys) mere presence told me all I needed to know about his character. Others, however, seemed to add little to the proceedings, or to not get the screen time they deserved. There’s a whole gang of trackers that include Zoe Bell (Death Proof), Tom Savini (Machete), and more, who you expect to show up as a menace but are there to add to the (already high) body count. Michael Parks (The Evictors) cameos as one of the dimmest characters I’ve seen in years, along side Quentin Tarantino himself, in a scene that felt completely unnecessary.*** One expects the “Mandingo” fighters to feature in the narrative more than as a MacGuffin but they quickly fade into the background. The film felt shaggy, as if there were scenes cut, and apparently an extended cut is on the way, with enough footage that the Weinsteins considered splitting Django Unchained into two halves as they did with Kill Bill. Apparently no one considered shoving fewer friends and heroes of Quentin, err, I mean characters, into the picture. The ending felt a bit anti-climatic. The aim seems to showcase a final confrontation between Stephen and Django, but it did not seem to carry the weight it needed to. There are plenty of Quentin’s trademark scenes of tense dialogue; all of Schultz and Django’s interactions with Candie are waiting to break out into violence. It’s entirely possible that a later, extended edition will make the film seem more complete.
I’ll leave even more in-depth dissections of the racial and historical implications of each scene in the film for the academics.** For now I’m giving this film a positive grade. Despite my determination to hate it on my way in to the theater, Django Unchained entertained me, and I enjoyed it. I’m not sure I agree with those who consider this to be a great film (as to “best of the year”, I’ve seen so few films released in 2012 that I really couldn’t say). It’s a good film that features all of Quentin Tarantino’s strengths and weaknesses. If you’re a fan, you’ll probably love it. If you’ve been on the fence lately, you’ll probably like it, and if you loathe Tarantino, this film isn’t going to change your mind.
*Franco Nero-the original Django-cast as the owner of the slave fighting Candie’s annoyed me, however-Django fought racists, damn it!
**Is Stephen and Candie’s relationship a nod to Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin’s, at least as far as Jackson might appear to some of Quentin’s critics who would think of Jackson as a sell-0ut? Jackson appears in all of Quentin’s movies, usually as rambunctious, foul-mouthed characters prone to drop N and F bombs, despite Quentin taking flack from many African-American critics due to his use of the N-word. Or am I just imagining that a white owner (director) encouraging his top slave (actor) to mouth off in front of others, then holding deadly serious councils with him in private could stand in for their relationship? What’s up with Schultz killing Candie and not Django (I suspect that is because Django already got revenge on the Brittles while it allows Schultz to finally strike against the institution of slavery as well as a man he finds beneath his contempt)? Still, Django has a very personal score with Candie, as he has, after all, been abusing Broomhilda and using her as a comfort woman for his fighters.
*** As has been pointed out by a good friend, the scene is not really unnecessary. The scene allows Django to show off his mastery of Schultz’s talented verbal skills and use the dimwitted Aussie’s perceptions of slaves against them. He now shares Schultz’s ability to talk himself out of intense situations. Django is then free to continue his hero’s journey, to show that, yes, once he was a student, but now he is the Master, ready to avenge the death of Schultzie Wan. The scene also brings us back to Django’s first wanted poster, and it turns out to be just as lucky as Schultz said it would be. That it took me until now to figure all this out means that either Tarantino’s story could have used some more shaping/editing, or that my dislike of some of his motifs blinded me to it. I would say a little of both-certainly there must have been some way to give us this scene without front loading the biggest gunfight and splitting up the deaths of the most vile characters in the film who the audience has grown to fear and hate.