Movie Review: Django Unchained
If you want to get into a real nerdy discussion of film, there’s no shortage of hot topics. One of the more contentious debates might just be Quentin Tarantino. Ask a film nerd what the best Tarantino flick is — or even just what they think of him — and you’re going to get a myriad of responses and probably a heated argument or two. There’s no doubt that Tarantino is a talented screenwriter and has had great success behind the lens, but in my estimation, as a film nerd, he’s a very overrated director. Now, now, put the pitchforks and torches down, let me explain. Django Unchained may be QT’s most successful film since Pulp Fiction, but a number of the Director’s signature quirks keep it from being a true masterpiece.
The very first film I reviewed was Kill Bill Volume 1. Nearly ten years ago, I hosted a segment for my college TV news show called the “Movie Extravaganza.” I was the news director for the program and used my sway with the program director to get a few minutes of air time during the show. I was smitten with Kill Bill, and thought it was a beautiful and fun movie — but nowhere near the quality of Tarantino’s past successes. I wouldn’t call Django Unchained a fun movie — the topics and acts it portrays are oftentimes incredibly hard to watch — but it is certainly Tarantino at the top of his visual game.
Django Unchained tells the story of Django (Jaime Foxx), a former slave turned bounty hunter, who desperately wishes to find his wife. Along with his partner King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django learns the bounty hunter trade and plans to reunite with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). I’m being intentionally vauge with the plot, and there is a lot more to it including memorable roles played by Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but it’s probably best to go into Django as cold as possible.
Of particular note is the chemistry between Jaime Foxx and Christoph Waltz. The duo is fun to watch on screen, and the interplay between Schulz’s almost giddy, methodical nature and Django’s unbridled rage and anger is perfectly played by the two actors. I could watch these two just bounty hunting for hours and be perfectly content.
Much of the sturm und drang surrounding Django has been it’s liberal use of the N-word and the film’s humor. Look, I won’t defend the usage of that word, it’s a despicable degradation to use it as a pejorative, but as a film set in a pre-civil war south it’s naive to pretend that it didn’t exist. I cringed whenever I heard the word used on screen. It’s an ugly word with horrible connotations, and Tarantino doesn’t (pardon the expression) white wash the grossness. Look, America was a fucked up place in those days (and let’s be real, kinda still is), and it’s insane to ignore that part of our history — vile as it may be. QT is simply presenting a Western with all the warts that are usually excised. I don’t think that he’s using the stage of history as a smokescreen to allow him to use the word, but I’m a white middle-class male, so take that as you will.
I will, however, take issue with Tarantino’s use of humor throughout the film. QT makes sure that whenever a slave is hurt or killed it is sacrosanct and deathly serious. Make no mistake, Tarantino is not using the slave characters as punchlines. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s character is much deeper than the initial cartoonish interpretation that is presented. Whenever a non-slave is killed, it’s used as a punchline. I understand the dichotomy that Tarantino is trying to make, and I laughed as several points during the film, but I can’t help but feel that the film’s message might have been more successful without the humor, or at least with much less of it. It’s that weird sort of hyperbolic and ultra-stylized Tarantino flair that needlessly apes the terrible films that QT grew up with — that weird style that Tarantino keeps pushing. It’s odd, but I just felt that the subject matter deserved a more serious interpretation than is on display here.
Someday, QT is going to make a flick that doesn’t trip over itself with goofy nods to ’70s exploitation films, and it’s going to be incredible. Django Unchained comes close, with Tarantino mostly staying away from weird camera homages (though the quick zooms he uses throughout are very obtrusive). It’s a beautiful film with rich color saturation and location shots that rival the sweeping exteriors of Lord of the Rings as far as beautiful vistas are concerned. It may very well be Tarantino’s most mature looking film. Set design is incredible, and the framing is impeccable. Sadly, the film does drag a bit with strange pacing. It could use a trimming and several interesting, but ultimately unimportant scenes could (and should) have been completely excised.
In the end, Django Unchained is a beautiful ugly film. It showcases moments of human atrocity while telling a fairly compelling revenge story. Tarantino manages to mostly keep his quirky style reigned in, but not enough to give this story the gravitas that it really deserved. Competency is something you should always expect from a Tarantino flick, and here QT delivers his most competent film since Pulp Fiction. I won’t lie, the subject matter is going to turn some people away, and that’s probably fair, but missing out on Django Unchained means missing out on one of QT’s stronger films and that would be a shame.