So, I’m a giant Quentin Tarantino nerd. Above my desk is a Pulp Fiction poster. To my right is a Death Proof one. I have seen every feature-length film Tarantino has directed, every feature-length film he’s written, and almost everything else he’s ever been involved in, including a couple of CSI episodes AND an episode of ER. (Well, probably. Honestly, I don’t actually remember the episode that I watched over a decade ago, but it aired well before I gave up on the series, so I’m sure I saw it.)
The only thing Quentin Tarantino’s ever done that I didn’t like was Jackie Brown — which, I don’t know, I just found boring. Other than that, I’m a huge fan. Pair that up with the fact that I’m absurdly fond of revenge fantasies — which, okay, is probably one of the reasons I like Tarantino so much — and there was really never any question that I’d end up seeing Django Unchained in theater.
And the thing is, I really enjoyed this movie. I had a great time watching it, and I’ll happily buy it on DVD to add to my Tarantino collection. But . . . I don’t know that it’s as amazing of a movie as some people have been telling me.
Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave turned bounty hunter, goes with his partner and mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from plantation owner and really terrible human being, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Problems and violence ensue.
1. There are a few different controversies surrounding this movie. One involves the repeated use of the n-word. Others are more central to the story itself — if the movie is using an atrocious period of American history merely to glorify violence, or if the movie is disrespectful to the millions of men, women, and children who were actually enslaved.
As far as the n-word controversy goes . . . I’m sorry; I think it’s bullshit. I understand why it bothers people. Clearly, I can’t bring myself to type the word when I’m perfectly capable (and very willing) to use every other swear word I can think of to punctuate my ire. But even though the n-word is said A LOT in Django Unchained, it never felt excessive to me. Which is to say, I never felt like Tarantino was writing the n-word into the script as a way to shock the audience about how boldly non-PC he was capable of being. Actually, the word seemed to be used quite casually, like the characters themselves didn’t think anything of it — which, I don’t think they would think anything of it. I completely understand people being uncomfortable or even offended, but I honestly don’t believe the use of the n-word is a legitimate problem with the movie itself.
As far as the other controversies go . . . well, I guess those are a little harder. I’m not in the mood to write a twenty page essay on why I find violence in the media to be something of a scapegoat for violence in real life (maybe sometime later, in its own blog post), so let me simply say that I don’t find Django Unchained to be particularly irresponsible in that regard. As far as being disrespectful to the dead . . . well, I didn’t really find it to be that, either. Would I feel differently if I were black? It’s possible. I can’t tell you that. But when I went to this movie, I didn’t see anything that made me feel like Tarantino was trivializing what real slaves must have gone through.
2. And to be very, very honest — for all the controversy that’s been swirling around Django Unchained, I honestly expected the movie to be a lot more shocking than I thought it was. Certain scenes are hard to watch because of the cruelty contained within them, but there really wasn’t anything in the movie that made me think, Holy SHIT; I can’t BELIEVE he went there.
And I’m trying to decide if that bothers me or not. The movie I saw in theaters was a lot of fun. I saw great acting, great writing, a few editing issues, and a somewhat problematic ending. It is, all in all, a very well-made revenge fantasy. But it is not the movie I’ve been hearing about for weeks, and I’m not at all certain it’s the movie that I was promised, either. I didn’t connect to Django Unchained the way I’ve connected to other Tarantino movies. I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach — the way I felt, for instance, after I’d seen Inglourious Basterds.
3. It’s hard to talk more about that without going into spoilers, of course, so let’s switch gears to casting.
Django (Jamie Foxx)
I like Jamie Foxx a lot in this movie. I like watching his progression from a man rescued to a man rescuing. He really nails that whole laconic, badass gunslinger character, and he’s a decent lead in a movie full of colorful characters and huge talent. I especially like him in this one scene where he has a mini-showdown with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. It’s not such a big moment — I mean, it’s not a shootout or anything — but you get a good sense of how far Django is willing to go to rescue his wife.
Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)
Honestly, Kerry Washington doesn’t have a whole lot to do here, other than to be a damsel in distress, but I think she does what she can with the role. There’s a tiny little moment near the end that I like a great deal. It’s a tiny moment, barely more than a gesture, but I thought it worked well.
Doctor King Schultz (Christoph Waltz)
Christoph Waltz is awesome in this movie. He provides a lot of the humor, but he certainly isn’t just the comic relief, nor does he simply fulfill the role of Mentor. Dr. King Schultz was always going to be a pretty cool character, but Waltz makes him nuanced and iconic in a way that not many actors could have. And he has such a knack for the dialogue — it’s like Waltz was born to star in Quentin Tarantino movies.
Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
I’ve seen a decent number of DiCaprio’s movies, and I’ve seen him play characters who make some questionably ethical decisions, but I don’t know that I’ve ever watched him play an outright villain before. (Well, except for in The Man in the Iron Mask, but he’s the hero in that too, so I’m not sure it counts.) Anyway, he’s a lot of fun here — DiCaprio is near cartoonish, but in a way that works for the story. Calvin Candie is childish, vain, and nowhere near as intelligent as he thinks he is. He’s not a particularly sinister character, but he is an abhorrent one.
Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen)
This is also something of a departure from what I’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson do in the past, and I think he does a great job with it. Out of all the characters, I think Stephen might be the hardest to play because everyone expects the white plantation owner to be a monster — the elderly black slave, on the other hand, is not typically a villainous character, and unlike Candie, Stephen can absolutely not be cartoonish. Despite being a slave, he is also in many respects the puppet master pulling strings, and that’s a difficult balance — but Jackson pulls it off remarkably well.
4. Of course, that’s only the main cast. Some of the smaller roles are played by James Remar, Don Johnson, and my absolute favorite, Walton Goggins.
There are also any number of fun cameos, but I’ll leave those in the spoiler section, just in case anyone wants to be surprised.
5. We might as well have the requisite talk about Sally Menke.
Quentin Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010, and many people have suggested that this film — at two hours and forty minutes long — suffers without her. I don’t really want to speculate too much on that — it feels oddly disrespectful, since I don’t know what the hell her process was, and it feels wrong to assume that I can comment on her contributions — but I will say that I think this movie could have been shorter by at least fifteen, maybe even twenty minutes. And I’m not even talking about making big cuts, just shaving off a couple of small unnecessary scenes or trimming down scenes that just goes on for a few frames too long.
For instance, Kerry Washington . . . she’s an absolutely lovely woman, no doubt, but I only need to see Jamie Foxx turn his head and imagine her swimming in a lake, like, once before I’m like, I got it. He’s seeing her everywhere. Please stop showing me hallucinations and get to REAL Kerry Washington, okay?
I should say, the movie doesn’t feel ridiculously long or bloated to me. I just think it could have been a little neater.
6. My more serious problem is the last, I don’t know, fifteen to twenty minutes? They’re . . . well, they’re uneven.
See, this big fight happens. It’s a great scene. It’s fun; it’s tense; it’s violent. But it’s not actually the climax of the story, or at least, it’s not supposed to be. Problem is, after that scene is over, the movie loses a great deal of tension. I’m not invested in the characters anymore because their outcome seems near certain. It’s just a matter of watching it play out. And while some of those scenes are enjoyable enough, they simply aren’t engaging, and that’s a problem.
A lot of people think that Tarantino should have just chopped off the last fifteen minutes of the movie and turned the big fight into the last fight of the movie. For reasons I’ll detail in the Spoiler Section, I actually don’t like that idea; however, there’s no question that the ending is problematic and something of a letdown to the rest of the film.
7. On the other hand, there is this outfit . . .
. . . and the thought of this outfit alone will make me smile for some time. Django, buddy, you’re already looking for a good chance at Worst Fashion, 2013. It’s not even February yet, so that’s impressive.
8. And the quasi-KKK scene . . . well, that doesn’t sound like it should be the most hilarious scene in the whole movie, but I was laughing really, really hard through it. Definitely one of my favorite sequences in the film.
9. Finally, some quotes. And warning: though I’m not particularly comfortable even typing the n-word, I’m going to for this section because, frankly, quotes already lose something when they aren’t in context of the scene. Editing words out makes it even worse, and I’m just not a big believer in editing swear words, even the worst ones.
Betina: “So, you’re really free?”
Betina: “You mean, you wanna dress like that?”
Broomhilda: “You’re scaring me.”
Stephen: “Why is I’m scaring you?”
Broomhilda: “Because you’re scary.”
Calvin: “Jesus Christ, Stephen! How many people run away while I was gone?”
Calvin: “Christ, Stephen! What is the point in having a nigger that speaks German if you can’t wheel em out when you have a German guest?”
Big Daddy: “Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. You understand? You can’t treat him like any of these other niggers around here, cause he ain’t like any of these other niggers around here. You got it?”
Betina: “You want I should treat him like white folks?”
Big Daddy: “No. That’s not what I said.”
Dr. King Schultz: “On the off chance that there are any astronomy aficionados out there, the North Star is that one.”
Dr. King Schultz: “It’s a German story. There’s always a mountain.”
Bag Head # 2: “I think we all know the bags was a nice idea. But — not pointing any fingers — they could have been done better. So how bout this time no bags, but next time we do the bags right and go full regalia.”
Calvin Candie: “You’re boss is looking a little green around the gills.”
Django: “Nah. He just not used to seeing a man ripped apart by dogs.”
Calvin Candie: “But you are used to it?”
Django: “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.”
If you don’t mind spoilers, the rest of the review continues below . . .
I’m not going to recap the whole movie because I don’t want to, but I will go over a few parts, particularly the ending. But before that, I should mention that this movie did its best to make me think I was going crazy. Because in the beginning of the film, Schultz rescues Django from this guy . . .
. . . who is some asshole played by James Remar. Schultz kills Remar’s character, and I was like, “Bye, Remar!” since I didn’t exactly figure him to have a long life expectancy anyway. So I was understandably surprised when James Remar came back to life as an entirely different character near the end of the movie. (I mean, he was still an asshole. But not the same asshole. Certainly not Zombie Asshole.)
So I was like, “Either Tarantino randomly had James Remar played two different assholes, or my first few Milk Duds were spiked with something and I was just hallucinating in the first ten minutes.” Neither of these options seemed terribly likely, but in truth, James Remar actually plays two different assholes for no real reason that I can see.
Also in the cameo department: Jonah Hill, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, M.C. Gainey, Amber Tamblyn, and Russ Tamblyn. Funny bit about that: I’m considerably more familiar with Amber than her father, so when she pops up in a window for half a second, I was like, “Hey! That’s Joan of Arcadia! Cool, I like her — oh, so that’s all she’s going to do in this movie, stare out a window?”
Well, damn. What’s the story with that?
The story with that: Russ Tamblyn, who starred in Son of a Gunfighter, also shows up for a few seconds, presumably so Tarantino could put him in the credits as “Son of a Gunfighter.” And how is Amber Tamblyn listed in the credits? “Daughter of Son of a Gunfighter.” Oh, Tarantino, you witty bastard.
Anyhow. Skip forward past a lot of the movie to where Dr. Schultz can’t help himself and kills Calvin Candie — even though he’s literally a handshake away from walking out the door with both Django and Broomhilda, all free to live their lives as they see fit. Now, I get it — he’s got cause, and I pretty much figured he was going to murder Candie the minute he started flashing back to D’Artagnan’s death. (D’Artagnan was the slave who was torn apart and eaten by dogs.) But still, as awesome of a moment as it was . . . you’re so fucking close, Schultz. You can leave now with your hurt pride and kill that motherfucker later. Weren’t you and Django shooting bad guys from on top of distant hills? There’s no reason you couldn’t conceivably do that, dammit.
Well, anyway. Schultz kills Candie, and James Remar # 2 kills Schultz. (I do find it immensely amusing that Christoph Waltz and James Remar manage to kill each other in this movie.) Django and Candie’s men then get into an epic shootout, which is put to an end when Stephen’s like, “Django, we’ve got your woman, so give up.”
Django gives up. Later, Walton Goggins very nearly castrates him, but Stephen saves him from that to explain how Django will be going to a coal mine to live out the rest of his miserable life. This is not a merciful punishment. Stephen explains how it’s basically the very worst thing he could think of, and how he easily managed to make all the white people think it had been their idea.
This scene between Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx is the main reason that I don’t want the preceding shoot-out to be the last big battle of the movie. Samuel L. Jackson is great here — he’s a really different type of villain, and this scene is integral to establishing his power.
That being said, Django Unchained starts to falter after this scene. Django is on his way to the mining company when he easily escapes with a little help from his Handbill of Obvious Foreshadow, and goes back to Candyland. (Or Candie Land. Either way, this is one joke that, for some reason, didn’t really land for me.) Django then easily kills all of Candie’s men (bye Walton Goggins and James Remar # 2), Candie’s sister, and Stephen himself. He kills Stephen by shooting him in both knees and blowing up the plantation with Stephen still inside. Broomhilda, waiting outside, gleefully claps like she’s just finished watching a particularly enjoyable play (which, love) and the two ride off into the sunset together.
Now, I don’t find any of this boring, exactly, and there are some nice moments here — I laughed pretty hard at watching Candie’s sister literally get blown away into the next room — but there’s no tension here, not one drop of it. Once Django is with the Australian mining company — and seriously, what the hell is up with that — it’s just a matter of waiting for him to go back and rescue Broomhilda. Going to the mines should feel like the darkest moment in his saga before he manages to turn the tables on his captors, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. And while I always expected Django and Broomhilda to have a happy ending, I still needed to feel suspense within these last few scenes, the sense that things could go wrong, that the heroes were in danger . . . and there just wasn’t any of that at all.
In a way, I found Django Unchained more enjoyable than Inglourious Basterds — because that movie is so godamned tense that it makes my stomach knot up just watching it — but I really wish Django Unchained had even half the gut-wrenching suspense that Inglourious Basterds has. Because I like this movie, and it’s definitely not without merit, but I do feel like it’s missing a vital element that’s keeping it from being Great, capital G.
Really good popcorn revenge fantasy, but not much more than that.
Samuel L. Jackson
Pride comes before the fall. No, seriously — I wouldn’t want to shake Calvin Candie’s hand, either, but godammit, Schultz. One handshake and everyone walks away free. Live to see another day — a day like tomorrow, when you kill all those motherfuckers without being shot to shit for it.