(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave who teams up with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to seek out the South’s most wanted criminals with the promise of Django’s freedom. Honing vital hunting skills, his one goal is to find and rescue the wife (Kerry Washington) he lost to the slave trade long ago. When their search ultimately leads to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the infamous and brutal proprietor of “Candyland,” they arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. Now their moves are marked and they must stay one step ahead of his treacherous organization.
– From DVD Production Notes
To say Django Unchained is controversial would be an understatement. In the beginning it seemed its biggest offense was being directed by a white man, but when you think about it… hasn’t nearly every slavery narrative been directed by a white man?
There was something about Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of the subject that put everyone on edge. It was a follow-up to his Nazi revenge film (and I’d argue his masterpiece), Inglourious Basterds, but that violent fever dream was what I’d call “culturally comfortable.” No one blinks an eye at violence perpetrated toward the Third Reich and its minions. It isn’t only considered just, but deserved and enjoyable.
The difference with Django is that slavery is the enemy. In this case the gun barrel is turned around and aimed directly in our faces. There is no one living whose family line hasn’t been effected by slavery in some way. For white American audiences, that implication is particularly uncomfortable. For black American audiences, it can be painful and seem completely exploitive. Tarantino is known as a provocateur and entertainer- not the ideal candidate to handle a sensitive subject.
Still, what’s interesting about Tarantino’s work here is how he unapologetically portrays its time: bald-faced, unflattering and completely unromantic. Although its tone is worlds away from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013), both films made me contemplate how I would be different if I had lived back then. We are living in a time where slavery is considered inhuman, but that attitude has prevailed for only 150 years. I was raised believing it was wrong, but what if I had been raised in a completely different environment with different beliefs?
I don’t have an answer, and films like Django have made me realize that. It’s a mirror everyone should hold up to themselves at some point. The relief I find in it is that its titular character has no compassion for those who oppress him. I figure that if I was one of them I’d deserve to die as well, and I’m fine with that.
Ultimately Django is about the ultimate underdog, an oppressed man coming into his own. This part of the story can be easily overlooked, especially in the wake of Will Smith revealing he turned down the title role because he believed Christoph Waltz was the lead. What isn’t taken into account is that Django is a western. The lead doesn’t have to say as much as his counterparts and still be the center of the film. Waltz’s Schultz is the means of getting Django to where he needs to go, and there is no doubt that the two of them respect each other.
Nevertheless I would argue that without a doubt this is Django’s film, not Schultz’s. Jamie Foxx is the star, turning in a performance that is soft-spoken and nuanced as well as razor sharp and conflicted. He is instantly understandable as he navigates one sickening situation after another but still manages to outsmart just about everybody. Some of the other characters have their moments to shine, but Django manages to hold his own against anyone.
This isn’t to suggest that Django’s only function is comeuppance. At the heart of the film is his love for Broomhilda. I can’t think of a film in recent memory- or ever, for that fact- that has sold me on a love story in under thirty seconds. Foxx and Washington’s performances are so good I believed in them immediately. Even Django’s fleeting visions of “Hildi” resonated when in any other film they would have seemed unnecessary or strange.
If Django and Hildi’s love is the core (and the catalyst) of the story, then bigotry, exploitation and bloodshed is its turning world. The idea of a freed slave attempting to reunite with his enslaved wife is not only unheard of, but a matter of life and death. However, unlike the doomed assassination plot in Inglourious Basterds, the game plan in Django is actually a good one. It’s covert, clever and ego-stroking for the intended target, who will undoubtedly fall face first into it.
Enter Calvin Candie.
Now before I get into it, I can’t emphasize enough how long I had been waiting for DiCaprio to play someone like this. For the first time in years his character was without conflict or a tragic bent. Instead Candy is a flat-out unbearable piece-of-shit tyrant of the first degree, and DiCaprio plays him with the force of a sledgehammer. One of my friends can only stand to watch the film until his arrival because everything he does is “too much.” I can see that, but there’s something latent in Candie’s character that suggests the latter in the nature vs. nurture argument. This is confirmed by his excised backstory in which Stephen (Jackson) is the one who instilled all of his ideas and habits. That’s horrific enough, perhaps even more horrific than what he does. Candie’s life could have been different if hadn’t been raised to be someone’s puppet.
And not surprisingly, his life is cut short. This is a Tarantino film, remember? Schultz finally gets irritated enough to cap him in the middle of an argument. After Candie topples to the floor like someone dying in a school play, there is a crash zoom on Stephen shrieking “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” It never fails to make me laugh.
Then it gets even more hilarious. Schultz fully realizes the consequences of his actions but just really, really, really doesn’t care. He shrugs and excuses himself with one of my favorite lines: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
This unleashes what is surely the bloodiest shootout in cinema history, because humans are walking bloodmines in the movie, spraying gore and viscera everywhere like popping balloons. It leaves very few characters standing, flinging Django into a rushed third act where he returns to Candyland, murders a bunch of underlings (“D’artagnan, motherfuckers!“), changes into Candie’s clothes and decides to do things his own way (namely: blowing shit up). All of this suddenness kind of leaves your head spinning, and here is my attempt to break it down.
When I talk about Django with other people, I always assert that it should have been two films instead of one. For a while Tarantino considered this plan but nixed it, trying to finish post-production in time for a December release. I’m not sure if this was the best idea. If you read the 166-page screenplay or the graphic novel published by Vertigo, there are so many missing backstories and amazing set pieces you can’t help but think, “Why didn’t this make it in?”
Once again, I don’t have the answers. While writing this I remembered that a theatrical release may be the most audience-friendly but not necessarily the best representation of the material. Upon seeing the theatrical version of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014) I had a similar feeling to what I experienced while watching Django. It was good but seemed, I don’t know… off. It wasn’t until I saw the director’s cut that I realized you actually needed the excised 84 minutes to make it a von Trier film. Now that Tarantino has mentioned a four hour version, I suspect this version is better as well.
For now Tarantino’s theatrical cut has its own variety of memorable set pieces but stark differences from his previous work. It could have been due to the editing, especially since his usual editor, Sally Menke, passed away in 2010. The pacing of Django is different and its transitions are more abrupt. For example, the slow set-ups leading to carnage in the Kill Bill films and Inglourious Basterds are no longer there, which isn’t only noticeable but jarring. The film’s composer, Ennio Morricone, stated that Django‘s use of music was “without coherence,” and in a way he’s right. The film doesn’t take its time or dig its nails into anything. Musical cues abruptly start and end, sometimes quitting in the middle of a sequence without warning.
In spite of this, what works in Django makes me watch it again and again. After all, nothing is funnier than watching a bunch of racists debate their botched hoods like something out of a Seinfeld episode.
Oh yeah, and then they ride in with their stupid hoods anyway. And lose. Above all, it’s the catharsis in watching oppressors lose that I find addictive. And in his usual style Tarantino makes sure they lose, and lose hard.