Django Unchained

by Tony Shea on December 31, 2012


DJU I always look forward to a new Tarantino film. I want to see what unusual mash up he’ll put together, in his highly personal and idiosyncratic style, filled with its black humor and carnage. And so it was that I felt a twinge of excitement as I went to see Django Unchained, on Friday night.

As it would turn out, that excitement was largely justified. The film has all sorts of great Tarantino touches: great performances from highly motivated characters, absurdest violence, and moments of genuine shock, combined with sharp dialogue. However, I also couldn’t help but feel a sensation that I had somehow seen this film before, a kind of deja vu that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At first, I thought it was the remnants of some old western bouncing around in my head, maybe A Fistful of Dollars, or was it…And then it occurred to me that it was Tarantino’s other films–that’s what was flickering through my memory. Tarantino seems to have reached a point where he is using his own films as the source material for his own films in a kind of ouroboros, where the snake eats its own tail.

Tarantino has been around for twenty years. During that time, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards have become three of my favorite films (Inglorious Bastards being what I would consider Tarantino’s masterpiece) and I felt like I saw all three of them reflected in Django Unchained. At some point, everything can’t be new.

Like Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained is essentially a revenge fantasy. In the case of Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo, as played by Uma Thurman, takes her revenge against the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, including the Bill of the title, her former lover who has shot her on her wedding day and left her for dead. In Inglorious Bastards, the revenge has a historical component, revenge against the Nazis for the untold crimes of the Holocaust, revenge personified in the characters of Shosanna and the Basterds. In Django Unchained, Taratino again revisits a historical wrong and sets out to take revenge against those who perpetrated the evils of slavery.

Jamie Fox gives a great performance as Django, a slave who is almost magically freed from his chains by a bounty hunter in need of his help to identify a trio of wanted brothers who worked on the plantation where Django once lived. The bounty hunter in this case is played by Christophe Waltz, he of Inglorious Bastards fame in the role of demented Colonel Hans Landa, for which he won an Academy Award. In Django Unchained he plays Dr. King Shultz, a former dentist now involved in the dead or alive bounty game. A bounty hunter in the dead or alive game is no different than a hit man, really. And that’s when it occurred to me that this relationship between Django and Dr. Shultz reminded me of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, playing Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, respectively from Pulp Fiction–a bi-racial hitman combo of eccentric personalities.

The performance that Waltz gives as Dr. Shultz has many of the same hallmarks of the performance he gave as Hans Landa. He speaks in English, German, and French at one point or another, with corresponding subtitles,  and owing to Waltz’s unusual accent and gleeful delivery, the two characters evidence the same sort of eccentric wickedness, almost as if Hans Landa had been teleported to pre-civil war America and made a good guy–sort of.

dicap djangoNow, what is perhaps odd, is that not only does Christophe Waltz’s performance in Django Unchained remind me of his performance in Inglorious Basterds, but also so does Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as plantation owner Calvin Candie.  Hans Landa and Calvin Candie resonate along the same emotional bandwidth and essentially serve the same function, to show us barbaric, amoral evil all dressed up as the civic body, well mannered and polite.

DiCaprio’s performance as Candie is a stellar one, brilliantly off kilter, savage, cruel, repulsive and charming. The scenes featuring Candie are some of the film’s most horribly violent. When we first meet Candie, he is enjoying a bit of sport in his library, cheering on two “Mandingos”  as they fight each other to the death–one man literally gouges out the eyes of the other before mercifully, for the audience anyway, killing him by bashing his head in with a hammer.

In perhaps the best scene in the movie, a bizarre scene that occurs at the immaculately set dinner table of the mansion, Candie removes the skull of a former slave from a velvet lined box. He then saws away a portion of the skull to show Shultz and Django three dimples on the skull’s interior. These dimples, Candie maintains, are the incontrovertible evidence that blacks are inferior to whites. It’s a tremendous scene that shows that people will manufacture evidence as a way of justifying their evil and DiCaprio plays it a hair away from madness.

samuel l jacksonOne of the things that is made apparent in the film is that not only is slavery monstrous, inhuman, bestial, and above all else cruel, but that slavery’s most especially cruel effect is to make those who are enslaved conspirators in their own enslavement. Which brings us to perennial Tarantino go-to-guy, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson, of course, has been in so many movies that it’s impossible for him not to be familiar to us by now. While the role he played as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction was sort of like his debutante ball, now we get the feeling that Samuel L. Jackson plays the Samuel L. Jackson Character, in much the same way Al Pacino does, half screaming his lines in his patented cadence. And to his credit, he does it great. Jackson’s role as Steven, the aging white haired house servant who has been living in bondage his entire life, is alternately hilarious and infuriating and sad for Steven, like the Mandingos who must murder one another for William Candie’s amusement,  has been co-opted in his own debasement. He has been turned into a pet. And like any faithful pet, his sympathies lie with his master.

Tarantino’s female leads like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and Melanie Laurent in Inglorious Basterds, often shine, but alas not so here. In the role of Django’s wife, Broomhilda, Kerry Washington is left without much to do, existing more often as a mirage who appears before Django’s eyes, smiling bewitchingly. While Django reminisces of her fondly in his discussions with Dr. Shultz, I’m not sure we are ever shown what the real spark of their love is. It certainly seems like it would have made sense to involve her in the action during the bloody gun battle between Candie’s men and Django. She and Django could have fought together side by side and in so doing could have created an antebellum version of Bonnie and Clyde, but she is not utilized. Rather Broomhilda exists to be a woman in distress waiting to be saved.

Of particular concern in Django Unchained is the ending. The film reaches a perfectly focused last scene around the two hour and fifteen minute mark as the shootout at Candie’s occurs. All the threads of the story have come together, the audience is ready for vengeance, and just the right strings have been pulled for a perfect emotional conclusion. But then a fourth act is tacked on, where Django is captured by Candie’s men, nearly castrated, sold to a mining plantation, transported there by Australian slavers, whom he then murders, before he returns to Candie’s plantation to finish what he started. But by the time that happens the audience’s thirst for blood has abated resulting in a disappointing conclusion.

Especially annoying during this elongated ending is that Tarantino casts himself in the role of an Australian slaver. His appearance is incredibly distracting and takes us out of the world that Tarantino has worked so hard to establish, since the minute he appears on screen every person in the audience says ‘Oh look, there’s Quentin Tarantino pretending to be Australian.’ Tarantino speaks with a shrimp-on-the-barbie-gooday-mate accent like he’s doing a Crocodile Dundee impersonation and sports gleaming white veneers and a clean shaven and boyishly plump face that seems out of place amidst scraggly beards, and blackened teeth. Of final annoyance is that Tarantino’s character is shot while holding a batch of dynamite and explodes across the screen, in what feels like a little in-joke between Tarantino and himself.

All that said, if practically any other filmmaker had made Django Unchained, it might qualify as great. By Quentin Tarantino standards, this film is merely good. Somehow good does not feel quite good enough.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

IP OP January 6, 2013 at 2:52 am

STILL MORE authorized PC ‘outrageousness’
from ‘Bad Boy’ wannabe, and ‘hidden master’ plaything

never cut it as cutting edge in 2013 —as POST
American takedown unfolds —-for REAL. . .

Dennis December 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I really liked the movie on a purely “Was I not entertained?” basis, but felt similarly about the fourth act. It felt, as you said, “unsatisfying”. Maybe if more had been done with his capture, where maybe we felt surprised by it, that the tables had turned, or even that he was fighting an inevitable, losing battle and were glad he didn’t die right there, it would have transitioned better. But it played out in a very ho-hum sort of way.

Entertaining as hell, but doesn’t live up to the bar QT has set for himself.

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