Let’s go ahead and get the Important Stuff out of the way. I mean, come on, who woulda thunk that Quentin Tarantino would be the one releasing the movie that has us talking more about Big Issues than any other director in 2012. If (and for your sake, when) you see Django Unchained, you’re going to get hit with several moments that are going to make you squirm, several where you’ll question whether your reaction is “OK”, and several where you wonder about your fellow movie goers. If you don’t, you’re not only going to want to check yourself in the mirror, but I’m a little worried about you. You might want to check yourself for the empathy gene. I’ve read some people actually referring to these moments as their Django Moments. They vary for everyone, but almost all of them refer back to one of the feelings I mention above.
The racial overtones are just impossible to ignore. At the showing where my wife and I saw Django, the theater was packed with as diverse (albeit mostly under 50) an audience I’ve seen a film with in a while. And there were absolutely moments where a tiny handful of the younger and, I’ll go ahead and say it, white members of the audience were laughing just a little too loudly and just a little too self-satisfiedly at some of the white on black violence. You can try to pretend you don’t hear it, but it’s there. But it’s not all about “other people” making you feel uncomfortable. You’re going to feel uncomfortable about yourself, too. How much is too much? What are you laughing at, and what are you laughing with? Is the violence cartoonish enough to not cross too many lines, or does it get too real?
The Django Moment that sticks out most for me was during a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio as the evil slave owner Calvin Candie was mindlessly swirling his cocktail in a coconut as his “Mandingo fighting” slaves fought to the death for his entertainment. This was an incredibly violent scene, squirm inducing. And the insouciance with which DiCaprio watched the scene in front of him is meant to add to the shock of it all, and help establish the evil of Leo’s character. And it was as uncomfortable as it was meant to be. Having said that, I also quickly realized I was popping popcorn into my mouth with nearly as much casualness as DiCaprio’s character as I watched the “entertainment” unfold on the screen in front of me. I ended up squirming at myself as much as at the screen.
There are a several moments like the one I describe here. The thing is, all of this would be a ton more concerning to me if the awkwardness wasn’t all right out there, floating obviously around everyone in the theater, and if there wasn’t so much talk about it by those who have seen it. If people were just showing up to Django, cackling and high fiving over the violence, and going home to have a beer, I’d be pretty concerned for us all. I don’t think we can overlook the fact that there are a handful of people out there doing exactly that, but most thoughtful people are going to have a conversation about what it all means. As I was watching the movie, I was enjoying it a ton. After it was over, I was immediately self-analyzing in order to decide the exact level of enjoyment I was going to allow myself to have.
But you know what, with the exception of it being a scene or two long, and the fact that female characters have very little place in the plot, except to be saved by the male characters, this is a freakin’ great movie. Sure we all should keep a perspective on what we’re watching, but it’s not our responsibility to assign the proper levels of guilt to everyone else in the theater, or to not be allowed to look at Django as the absolutely great movie entertainment that it is. And while Tarantino was obviously looking to tweak us all and push us into (to quote a line from his own Pulp Fiction) a few “uncomfortable silences”, he’s ultimately looking to do it in an as entertaining and mishmashed package as possible. No one uses cinema the way Tarantino can. And he delivers here with an awesome combination of spaghetti Western homage, exploding male id revenge fantasy to the nth degree, first rate buddy flick, boy saves girl, and ultimate good guy takes out ultimate bad guy story. If you’re not into any of that, don’t see it. But if you are, queue it up, my friend. Because you’re going to love it.
The first half of the movie shows off Tarantino at his best in terms of dialogue, particularly in the droll particularness of delivery from the brilliant Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Shultz. The doctor hasn’t practiced in years, and is now a smooth talking bounty hunter. As the movie opens, he needs the help of Jamie Foxx’s slave, named Django (“the D is silent”) to help him find his next quarry, the evil Brittle Brothers. Django knows what Shultz’s the brothers look like, and Schultz promises Django his freedom if Django helps Shultz track down the notorious bros. As it turns out, Django is a natural at the bounty hunting game. Shultz recognizes a winner when he sees one, and promises to help Django track down and reunite with his enslaved wife if Django will work with him as a bounty hunting partner through the winter.
Waltz as Shultz really shines in this first half of the film. Tarantino is nothing if not an incredible writer, and the first half of the movie shows that he still has it, the best in Hollywood at writing a comic scene that tells a precise story, and has you hanging on every word. Foxx and Waltz have a perfect chemistry. Foxx has a tough role to play, an uneducated slave who you know is going to emerge as a badass. He works the meek to hero transition perfectly. You know all along that his Django is the coolest cat in the West, even as he struggles with learning the bounty game. And his laser like focus on it all being about saving his wife is at the forefront of the story throughout. Foxx slow boils through the entire film. There’s never any doubt that he’ll save his wife, and that there’ll be hell to pay. The only mystery is how it is all going to go down. In the hands of Tarantino, you can’t wait to find out.
It’s interesting that two of the best films of 2012, Django and the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty are ultimately revenge epics. You can make an argument that the desire for revenge can be one of the most visceral, and ultimately, ugly of all human instincts. Which is why, when handled effectively, the ability to let off the steam for that revenge desire through the movies has worked so well over the years. And come on, if you’re going to make a revenge movie with a higher overall theme than one guy getting revenge on another, what better theme to cash in on than slavery? Who doesn’t want to see the slave owners get their’s? When you stop to think about it, you have to give this to Tarantino. Between Nazis and slave owners, the man knows how to pick his bad guys.
In Django, nobody appears to have more fun chewing scenery than Leonardo DiCaprio as the ultimate evil slave owner Calvin Candie (owner of the, wait for it, Candyland Plantation). Articles have mentioned that Leo himself was concerned that Django went too far. But once he was convinced to roll with it all, he obviously had a blast twirling his moustache and building us up to the thrill of seeing him and his entire crew cashed in. The acting all the way around in Django is an absolute thrill to watch. Waltz, DiCaprio, and a deliciously despicable Samuel Jackson as DiCaprio’s toady are standouts, and Tarantino gives us his usual roundup of interesting and fun cameos throughout, including a Colonel Sanders-like Don Johnson. With all the macho star power circling around him, it is an absolute testimony to Jamie Foxx that his Django is still the center piece that everything revolves around. His Django is a straight bad ass in the classic Tarantino and spaghetti Western tradition, and Foxx makes it all his with the slow burn and focused sizzle he brings to the role.
For Tarantino completists, Django absolutely fits nicely with the rest of his output. I’d actually go so far as to say this is one of his best. One thing that makes Tarantino a cut above even the best of Hollywood directors is his aforementioned writing ability, which is here in abundance. But it is also his unadulterated love for his characters. It’s funny considering how many people die in QT’s movies, but no one writes characters and knows them (even the smaller roles) as meticulously and with as much affection as Tarantino. He’s also the master manipulator in this movie. After all, what’s the point of doing a revenge movie if the audience isn’t built up to despise the bad guys and get a big payoff when the good guys finish off the baddies? In Django, Tarantino is the expert puppet master.
Even with the way he uses violence, which is hard to watch at times, Tarantino plays the audience. There are exceptions here and there, but almost exclusively the white on black violence is portrayed much more realistically, designed to build the hate you have for the bad guys (mostly the whites). When the payoff comes and the Candyland bastards are blown to smithereens, the violence is much more cartoonish. It’s still squirm inducing at times, and certainly it can be argued that it lingers a bit too long in spots. But your visceral side cheers as the villains get what’s coming.
This isn’t a perfect movie, by any means. Tarantino probably does get a bit too happy with himself with one too many false endings. And even though the main story line here is the old male fantasy of the macho hero saving the damsel in distress, in 2012 it would still be nice to see the female character with a stronger place in the outcome of the story. There’s also no way around the racial aspects that everyone is talking about, the violence, etc. Everybody is going to have a different reaction to all of that. I’m not here to tell anyone what the right answer to it all is. But for me, in the end, this is a great movie, a first rate entertainment from a master storyteller and manipulator in the absolute best Hollywood sense. I was more than happy to fall in line, root for the bad guys to get their’s, and see the girl get saved by the hero. Add in the buddy flick aspect, the genius homage to spaghetti Westerns, and you end up with what is a solid candidate for the best movie entertainment of 2012.