Film Review: Django Unchained – Exhilarating, Unwatchable…and a lot of other things

Film Review: Gordon K. Smith

django-unchained-image07One part spaghetti western, one part ’70s blaxploitation, one part alternate-universe historical revision, Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is, by turns, funny, shrewd, repellent, breathtaking, exhilarating, unwatchable, and a lot of other things.

It starts as a spot-on imitation of ’60s spaghetti westerns, down to the blood-red title graphics, the tacky European-sounding western ballad, and a snatch of Ennio Morricone’s score to TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, an 1970 Hollywood imitation of those Sergio Leone epics.  The source is the DJANGO Italian western series of the late ’60s, which starred Franco Nero (who makes one of the many star cameos here).   A title tells us “1858 – two years before the Civil War”, the first of many deliberate anachronisms (that war began in 1861).  It may be beside the point to note such anachronisms in a film in which Samuel L. Jackson’s butler character publicly drops the “MF” word, and the music cues range from rap to Jim Croce, but here’s some others:  clothing and weapons from a decade or two later, dynamite (invented in 1867),  a KKK-type posse (again, of post-war origin).  Yet that same posse is played for foul-mouthed, slapstick laughs, exactly as though it were a lost scene from BLAZING SADDLES.  It’s Tarantino’s world (we shall refer to him as QT henceforth).

Django (Jamie Foxx in his best role since RAY) is freed from a Texas slave crew by Dr. King Schultze (Christoph Waltz of QT’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, in a vibrantly theatrical performance).   Schultz is a bounty hunter masquerading as a traveling dentist who needs Django’s help in identifying a trio of murderous brothers.  Django needs King’s help in finding and rescuing his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington), held on the Candyland plantation by the sadistic but debonair master Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio in his, and the film’s, greatest performance, and looking good in a goatee).  Candie is also a practitioner of the Mandingo fighting racket, a nod to another exploitation fave of QT’s, 1975’s MANDINGO.  King and Django team up as a traveling con man team to “kill white people for cash” (am I the only critic to see the reference to 1971’s THE SKIN GAME, starring James Garner and Louis Gossett as  an antebellum con team?)

Thanks to her original German owners, Brunhilde speaks German (in fact, most of Washington’s lines are in German), which sets up Django’s quest as a Western/Deep South retelling of Brunhilde and Siegfried, by way of King’s knowledge of Teutonic mythology.

As I said, this is the QT universe.  He has cited historical accuracy for the constant use of the N-word by all the characters, black or white, even when DJANGO makes outrageous gear changes. In a rare case of QT subtlety, when a slave who has displeased Candie is torn apart by dogs, we mostly hear it, not see it – very effective.  But when the ultimate gun battles happen, geysers of gore decorate the walls.  Even for QT, it’s way over the top – he must have friends at the ratings board, that this escaped an NC-17 rating.  I get totally that it’s the operatic aria of the piece, a one-man revenge-fantasy holocaust in answer to the holocaust of slavery, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  And this is in the last half hour of a two and ¾ hour movie.  It could be a half hour shorter if not for QT’s signature layered dialogue sequences, wherein a scene that should be over in ten minutes gets protracted to three times that length.    Those scenes would be hard to get through as well but for the uniformly fine performances (Jackson scores as the scheming Stephen, whom QT’s script views as a collaborator in the evil institution), and the high level of production (Robert Richardson’s gleaming cinematography ranges from beautiful landscapes to the shadowy bloodbaths).   It’s back to the spaghetti western/blaxploitation mashup for the fiery ending, with Django as the ruthless avenger of his people, and clear promises for a DJANGO 2.

In case you didn’t get it yet, DJANGO UNCHAINED is not for everyone.  As I did at the end of BASTERDS, I wasn’t sure how to feel, part of me wishing QT had told a straight historical story, but that probably misses the point.  The man wants to rewrite history – and the history of movies – with movies that are a unique hybrid of high and low art.

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