2 hours, 45 minutes
I should say right off the bat that, though this review is going to be somewhat gripey, I did enjoy “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloody period shoot-em-up. It’s a good movie — not for everyone, but Tarantino is such a skilled filmmaker that he can’t help but make a good movie. The problem is that he’s so aware of his enormous talent, and yet not self-aware enough to have any kind of filter. His movies are probably much like I would imagine the man himself is. Entertaining, fascinating to a point, and ultimately, as the night goes on, more and more obnoxious.
Django refers not only to the lead character, a slave-turned-bounty hunter played by Jamie Foxx, but also to a series of cheap spaghetti westerns from the sixties and seventies that Quentin Tarantino obviously loves. Though they share the name, our current “Django” and those previous films have nothing in common, other than possibly tone. Taking place shortly before the Civil War, Foxx’s Django has been recently sold to a pair of slavers out of Texas as punishment for attempting to run away from his plantation with his wife, Broomhilda, in tow.
When Christoph Waltz, as German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz shows up, things get heated pretty quickly. Schultz wants Django to help him identify a trio of outlaws hiding out as overseers on another plantation, and in return, he will offer our hero his freedom. Django agrees, but freedom isn’t really first on his agenda. What Django wants is to find and rescue his wife, now in the hands of Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio playing the wealthy owner of a large farm he playfully calls Candie Land, and who is best described by Dr. Schultz at one point as “repellent.”
The first half of the movie is a fun shoot-em-up where we see Django go from slave to hired gun, a transformation that is complete when we enter the second half of the film, which can best be described as a kind of violent grifter movie, where Django and Schultz run a long con on Candie in an effort to rescue Broomhilda. As in any Tarantino movie, things don’t go as planned.
What irritates me more than anything else about the films of Quentin Tarantino is that he can’t seem to let you just enjoy the story without pausing every so often to draw attention to himself. I don’t include his first three movies in this gripe, as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” are all a little more restrained than his later work, but let me give an example. At one point in “Django,” after our hero and the good doctor have finished off their appointed targets, they decide to spend the winter taking bounties and earning enough money to go get Broomhilda in the spring. Fine. This sets up the montage where we see Django learn the trade craft and grow into the character he’ll become. This is pretty straightforward, so it’s right at this point that the director has to overlay a silly, completely ill-advised seventies pop song by Jim Croce.
If you’ve seen “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” you’ll remember the scene where the boys take a time-out from the gunfights to play on a bicycle to the tune of “Raindrops keep Falling on My Head.” It’s like that. This is Tarantino showing off. It’s as if he’s sitting next to you in the theater elbowing you in the ribs to remind you that you’re not just watching a gripping tale about a character named Django, you’re also watching a masterful recreation of the trashy niche films that Tarantino loved as a child, where every minute detail has been attended to, even aspects of those old movies that were not worth restoring, such as their odd inclusions of cheesy theme songs.
I’m fully aware that Quentin Tarantino knows more about movies than I do, and I don’t need to be pulled out of the story to be reminded of that. At another odd moment, the director runs a huge type element across the screen to let the audience know that we’re now in Mississippi. It’s a jarring departure from the rest of the style of the film, and is probably a reference to something obscure in some little-seen movie, and it’s annoying. Is it annoying enough to not recommend the movie? No. Just maybe annoying enough to suggest that Tarantino isn’t someone I’d enjoy hanging out with.
There’s another aspect of the film that should be addressed before one goes in willy-nilly thinking they’re going to see a Civil War era shoot-em-up. “Django Unchained” is exceedingly violent. Way more violent than “Inglorious Basterds,” and way more disturbing than the “Kill Bill” movies, as this movie is less silly. Often the violence is of the western gun-battle variety, but there’s a lot of torture and brutal death as well, including a scene where a man is ripped apart by dogs. This isn’t the kind of thing I wanted to sit through no matter how entertaining the rest of the story.
Tarantino is getting kudos for making a fun genre film that also makes a strong anti-slavery comment, but I think that’s ridiculous. Tarantino deserves accolades for his technical talent, for his ability to get great performances out of great actors and even those who are not so great, and for his writing, but there’s no reason to throw a civil-rights award on the pile as well. He’s not making social commentary with this movie. Tarantino is not trying to right old wrongs or teach anybody anything, other than how much he knows about trashy films of the seventies. He is using slavery, just like he used Nazis in his last movie, as a convenient and roundly-despised evil that he can wrap a bunch of righteous bloodshed around. I’m not going to criticize the man for making a violent action movie, but neither am I going to give him props for saying “slavery was wrong,” as if that’s some kind of radical statement.
There’s more about “Django” that I liked than disliked — the performances of Foxx, Waltz, and DiCaprio, as well as a host of smaller roles are great. The dialogue is crackling, as always, and the movie takes you in directions that you’re not always expecting, a Tarantino specialty. I appreciate all that, and though twenty minutes too long, I did enjoy the movie.
But Tarantino doesn’t just want me to love the movie — he wants me to love him, too, and that’s getting harder and harder with each passing flick.
“Django Unchained” is rated R for disturbing, graphic, and wall-to-wall violence, as well as explicit and pervasive language, and brief nudity.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.