Prior to seeing Django Unchained I happened to catch Quentin Tarantino’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s program promoting the picture. I’ve seen all of Tarantino’s previous appearances on that show, all of which were quite enjoyable, but was quite taken aback at this latest interview. It was one hour of shameless self-adoration. Tarantino has always been confident in his abilities, but what really separated this interview from the ones he had given Rose in the past was the degree to which he seems to perceive the public cares about his philosophies on film, his work ethic as both writer and director, and his personal cinematic tastes. Judging from his quasi-scripted elucidations, he probably considers his level of influence to be at the industry’s zenith. I have no doubt that there is a large assemblage of followers that sincerely do hang on his every word, but judging further the manner in which he carried himself on the program, he felt that clique to be all encompassing. Admittedly, I too am a great admirer of his, but I found him very immodest in that interview, and immodesty is rarely considered to be an admirable trait. Charlie Rose was partially to blame for leading him along that analytical track, in which all minutiae surrounding the production of Django was thoroughly explored ad nauseum. I began to worry that all of this eye roll-inducing self-indulgence may have rubbed off from the film itself, for I had high hopes for Django. I decided at that time to suspend judgment and wait for the film to speak for itself.
Quentin Tarantino, since abandoning the crime genre, in which his first three masterful films fell into (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), has since engulfed himself a genre which may be entirely his own, that of ‘fantasy revenge’ films. The Kill Bill films were the first of these, followed by 2007’s Death Proof, and more the recent Inglourious Basterds. Basterds and Django possess the further distinction of being somewhat historically based, and I mean that in the loosest possible terminology. To watch both of these films, one is required to disregard everything one has learned about these eras in history and to simply accept them as vehicles for entertainment. I found that a reasonable prerequisite, as long as they were indeed entertaining. Inglourious Basterds, set during WWII, is a delightful piece of whimsy that grants a small group of Jewish mercenaries the opportunity to take revenge upon their Nazi oppressors. For Django Unchained, Tarantino has chosen yet another persecuted group from history; this time African-American slaves in the years directly preceding the Civil War. Why Quentin Tarantino, seeing that he is neither Jewish nor Black, felt compelled to play champion to these two oppressed peoples is beyond me. Given that he is part Cherokee, it seems more fitting for him to have devised a fantasy revenge picture in which the native tribes of the Americas expel the European colonists. Perhaps that could be an idea for his next project.
Django Unchained opens with a literal bang. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, whose self confidence seems to match only Tarantino himself, frees (through the most theatrical means) a slave named Django who is his only lead in identifying a group of lawless brothers with a price on their heads. After doing away with the brothers and collecting the bounty, Schultz teams up with Django and agrees, out of a sense of responsibility he says, to help Django track down his wife, Broomhilda [sic], whom he was separated when they were sold to new owners. Waltz, who was the scene-stealing Nazi detective in Basterds, again plays a highly capable German polyglot—a role that Tarantino may end up typecasting for him. Tarantino’s hubris seems to manifest itself within the character played by Waltz. He’s highly articulate, with a scripted sense for delivery, and is master of every sticky situation he finds himself in. Django on the other hand is soft-spoken and reserved (at least toward the beginning), but despite being a slave can ride a horse effortlessly and handle a firearm with Billy the Kid-like accuracy. Together they make an unlikely team, but an interesting foil for the film’s surly villain: plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), captor of Broomhilda.
Up until the arrival of Schultz and Django at ‘Candie Land’ (the name of Candie’s plantation) the film is quite enjoyable. Not up to Tarantino’s usual high standard, but a lot of fun in many ways. However, once the blood bath of fantasy revenge begins everything falls out of alignment as we are subjected to some of the most gratuitous massacres most likely ever filmed. It was at this point I was reminded of a comment Tarantino made on Charlie Rose about the TV mini-series, Roots. He expressed great disdain at the last episode where Chicken George (a slave) refuses the opportunity to whip one of the most hatefully racist characters on the series (played by Lloyd Bridges). Making the claim that America’s thirst for blood went unquenched, he added that Django would not have that problem. Well, he was right. But to warrant such a thirst, one would have to conjure up figures far more personal than that of racial bigots from nearly two centuries ago. A thirst like that would require the combined forces of sadistic school bullies, abusive stepparents, sexually-predatory clergymen, and conniving co-workers to justify the utter madness that is the last forty minutes of this picture.
Quentin Tarantino has been criticized for the violence in his films going all the way back to his first film, Reservoir Dogs. Those criticisms were never duly justified as he himself rightly pointed out that the bulk of the violence happens off camera. This, I felt was a much better way to deal with the violent aspects of his films. Implications of violence leave much more to the imagination of the viewer, in turn allowing them to control the effectiveness of which. By subjecting the viewer to explicit, exaggerated violence and gore, one can distance the viewer from the picture, unless he or she fetishes it. Those with a healthy appetite for blood and guts will relish this film. I personally do not shy away from violence when it is presented in a way contextually congruous to the story. In Django however, the level of violence is entirely incongruous, and exaggerated to fulfill a fetishist’s appetite.
Django Unchained is an entertaining picture all right, but by the final act the film begins to suffer from becoming too entertaining, if that at all makes sense. There are many funny moments laden throughout. Many people may make reference to the scene with the KKK members complaining about the poorly slit eyeholes in their masks. True, it was funny, but the gag went on far too long and began to tug at udders where the milk had already run dry. By far the funniest lines in the film come from Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, head servant to Calvin Candie. He’s deliciously foul-mouthed, and has enjoyed his long-lived status at Candie Land for so long that even he harbors racist tendencies toward his own people. It’s Jackson’s best role in years, and he is the true scene-stealer in this film, not Waltz.
One of the more surprising, yet disappointing aspects of the film is the lack of biting dialogue that has become a Tarantino staple. Scenes in this film are often structured in a manner to place more emphasis on the dialogue, which is neither fresh nor memorable. A particularly annoying convention Tarantino uses is to have tense confrontations between characters interrupted to showcase side-dialogue, often with a passive party. It comes off as arrogant as disrupts the flow of the picture. The film’s grand monologue, if it can be said to have one, would be Leonardo DiCaprio’s spiel on the phrenology of African slaves. When compared to Tarantino’s past great monologues, such as Samuel L. Jackson’s one about the shepherd from Pulp Fiction, and David Carradine’s one about Superman from Kill Bill, Volume II, this monologue is a more than a few rungs below those. And some of his characterizations are inconsistent. Dr. Schultz in particular, who I refuse to believe was as vain as he was portrayed in the scene that triggered the blood bath at the end. All prior depictions of his character suggested him to be too calculating and interested in self-preservation to be as reckless as he was in that particular scene. As for the character of Django himself, I never found him endearing enough to generate any sympathy for, or to want to root for him in the end. The same goes for Broomhilda. Of all of the characters in the film, shockingly the hero and heroine were the most superficial and cardboard. This of course greatly detracted from the film’s climax.
After viewing the film, the fears generated from the Charlie Rose interview were unfortunately realized. Django Unchained overall is a fiercely arrogant and self-indulgent picture. I realize that any film based on a person’s inner fantasies would have to be self-indulgent at its core, but what exacerbates the level indulgence is the apparent need to share it with others with the confidence that that particular fantasy may be universal. I think all of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about taking the most extreme and contrived revenge upon our tormentors, but personally I shudder at the thought of other people having access to those passing fancies of mine.
Django Unchained is a small blemish on an otherwise flawless directing career. Quentin Tarantino has proved himself in the past two decades to be one of the most visionary directors working. I might add that I would have to rank Pulp Fiction as one of top ten best films ever produced. I’ve always felt that with that film, which occurred so early on in his career, he set the bar too high for himself. He may never be able to top it, but I sincerely hope that he regains his footing after Django.