Django Unchained

Looking back at Quentin Tarantino’s resume, it is easy to see it as a series of homages to various forms of B movies.  Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are film noir, the Kill Bill films are martial arts and so on.  Of course it’s not that simple.  Tarantino always adds something of his own, be it a verbal avalanche of pop culture references or a bit of gratuitous violence and gore, cleverly done, of course.  There is always a willingness to take it a bit too far.

The truth is that nobody cannibalizes cinema history in quite the same way.  In Django Unchained what’s on his plate is clear, and it’s an Italian dinner, namely spaghetti western.  Except that Tarantino makes slavery a major part of the story.  This fits in with his inspiration.  I don’t think Sergio Leone had a clear grasp of American history or geography.  Tarantino just doesn’t care. 

So Django, played by Jamie Foxx and his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, try to escape from their plantation.  They are caught and then sold separately.  But the overseers at the plantation are wanted criminals, the Brittle Brothers.  Django is freed by Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, a bounty hunter who is looking for the brothers.  He needs Django to identify them.  The two men form a friendship and partner up.  Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, who is at the plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a particularly despicable slave owner.

That’s a great cast there, especially if you add in Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s aging butler who runs the plantation’s slaves in as cruel a manner as any white bigot could.  And while acting is not really the point of this film, some performances stand out.  Christoph Waltz gets all the funny lines and yet he shows you his deeply hidden disgust over slavery and you believe it when he acts on it.  Samuel Jackson is brilliant as always.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives a riveting performance as a decadent son of the southern aristocracy who enjoys pitting his slaves against each other in fights to the death.  Yet he’s also not that bright and is open to being manipulated by Stephen.

In the early days of his career, Quentin Tarantino was known as an enfant terrible.  Like Orson Welles fifty years earlier, he was making brilliant independent films and not being particularly humble about it.  He said what was on his mind and his films, as stylized as they were, told uncomfortable truths.

Now I think the term enfant terrible takes on a new meaning.  The basic outline of the plot here is something a child might come up with.  Someone hurts you and you kill them.  There is very little in the way of mitigation.  The only good white man in the movie is Dr. Schultz.  Compare this with Spielberg’s Lincoln where the shades of gray surrounding the abolition of slavery are examined in great detail.  And yet they were fighting a war to end it.  I would point out that the body count in Lincoln is far higher than in Django Unchained.

Sometimes our adult sophistication gets in the way.  Slavery was a complex and pervasive issue.  And its legacy remains a complex and pervasive influence on our country and culture.  But sometimes when you are confronted with ultimate evil, the direct approach is only response.

Sometimes you have to fight back.




5 Responses to “Django Unchained”

  1. 1 Tom December 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    See, I’m confused… I’d thought this was going to be less Spaghetti western and more 70’s black exploitation (of the “Mandingo” flavor) in which case, just as Pulp Fiction wasn’t dealing with organized crime, this isn’t dealing with slavery — but the exploitation of the idea of slavery as an excuse for indulgent visceral outrage, revenge, and violence porn — I’ve always seen Tarantino as an inherently “silly” filmmaker… that his films are meant to be silly and unrealistic and the ultra-realism that he uses is just to exemplify that.

  2. 2 theotherebert December 30, 2012 at 1:19 am

    No, it’s definitely spaghetti western. You can tell from the titles and the cinematography. The name Django comes from a famous 1966 film staring Franco Nero who has a cameo in this film. And I don’t see why things you call silly and what I call childish can’t make a statement. Art reflects reality even if that reflection is distorted.

  3. 3 CaryCitizen (@CaryCitizen) January 2, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    I like what you’re doing here, Ebert. Turns out we had the same take on The Hobbit. Love to chat sometime. Keep up the good work!

  4. 4 Sue Real January 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    you have a long way to go to put your name next to Rodger Ebert
    You did not review the story you just told the whole thing which I did not
    need to know.
    go back to school and read what a real review is like.

  5. 5 theotherebert January 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Sorry you didn’t like the review. My philosophy is that the best reviews are ones that give you an idea of what the film is like so the reader can make his/her own decision independent of my judgement. In addition I felt the need to comment on the current controversy surrounding this film. I guess in the middle of all that I forgot to offer an opinion. Although in a way that is an opinion in and of itself. The film did not evoke any strong feelings in me at all which is rare for a Tarantino film.

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