Set in the pre-Civil War south, “Django Unchained” tells the story of the friendship that develops between a bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and a slave, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), and their mission to find and free Django’s wife Hilde (Kerry Washington), one of the many slaves belonging to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). It was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who in 2007 noted perceptively that American films have not dealt sufficiently with slavery because Americans are ashamed of that era.
“Django Unchained” is Tarantino’s attempt to remedy that failure, and there is much to admire in it. Foremost is Tarantino’s unsurpassed ability to bring his characters to life. Throughout his career, Tarantino has given us unforgettable characters like Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs”, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction”, and O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill”, characters that, while larger than life, are still totally believable. Schultz, Django, and Candie deserve to stand with the very best of his creations.
The two keys to their believability are the strength of the actors’ performances and the verisimilitude of Tarantino’s dialog. In “Django”, we have memorable performances from just about everyone. Jamie Foxx can convey as much with his eyes alone as other actors do with an entire paragraph of dialog. Christoph Waltz, who was so impressive in “Inglourious Basterds”, demonstrates here an absolutely impeccable sense of timing, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the despicable Calvin Candie is completely convincing. All three deserve Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
Similarly, Tarantino deserves great credit for both his screenplay and direction. As a screenwriter, he is an acknowledged virtuoso; his dialog combines the realism of a documentary with uncommon literary merit. As a director, well, when all the acting is outstanding, you have to give a lot of credit to the director. Furthermore, Tarantino understands as well as anyone how to pace his movies to best effect. In his best scenes, he allows the suspense to build in a seemingly leisurely way until it reaches an almost unbearable pitch. Though the films of Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock could hardly be more different, Tarantino, in my opinion, is the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense. If you’re not convinced, I refer you to the opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds” for proof.
In addition, “Django” features breathtaking cinematography, costuming that is a feast for the eye, and an attention to detail that is unique to Tarantino. There is even a variation of the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino movie would be complete.
As much as there is about “Django Unchained” to admire, however, it fails to rise to the standard that Tarantino himself established in his previous movies. To begin with, it is uncharacteristically heavy-handed. Its excesses range from the surprisingly unsubtle – as, for example, when the camera lingers overlong on the scarred backs of the slaves during the opening credits – to the unspeakably brutal – as when two slaves wage a fight to the death for nothing more than the amusement of their owners, or when a cowed and helpless slave is torn to pieces by vicious dogs.
One has to wonder what such heavy-handedness is doing in a Tarantino film. The judgment and taste he brought to his early movies were above reproach. One possible answer is that he is so passionate about his subject that his good judgment deserted him at points. He lost sight of the fact that, by continually shocking us, he risked leaving us numb to the very sensations he wanted us to feel. How much more effective might it have been if he had left more to our imagination? My feeling is, he would have left us with mental images that would have lasted long after repeated shocks to our system have worn off.
I expect to see bloodshed at a Tarantino movie. One of the hallmarks of his movies has always been his stylized portrayal of violence. In “Django Unchained”, however, he goes too far. We have one example after another of great gouts of blood spurting from the maimed bodies of the dead and dying. Did Tarantino imagine that repetition would heighten the cumulative effect of these scenes? In fact, at some point they begin to lose their impact, and we simply long to get on with the story.
Another objection: Tarantino is concerned, and rightfully so, with historic accuracy, and I have no doubt that the horrors and atrocities of the slave era are presented faithfully. I was surprised that his insistence upon historic accuracy didn’t extend to his characters’ language, which is often anachronistic. I can find no evidence that the word “motherfucker” was ever used as early as 1858. Neither did people use expressions like, “Get her ass out of there.”
With the exceptions of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom”, I was less than impressed with the music Tarantino chose for “Django”. Considering his success in choosing music for his previous movies, this was a particular disappointment.
My biggest objection to “Django” is the extent to which Tarantino makes use of spectacle and cheap thrills. This continues a trend in his movies that began with “Kill Bill, Volume 1”, but I want to emphasize that I loved every frame of “Kill Bill”. I didn’t object to the cheap thrills there because “Kill Bill” is a samurai movie, and makes no pretense of being anything else. You expect cheap thrills in a samurai movie. I didn’t object to the cheap thrills in “Death Proof” either, because it was unabashedly a B-movie, and in my opinion, the best of its kind. My first real reservations about Tarantino had to do with “Inglourious Basterds” because there, for the first time, I felt that he was using violence more for its shock value than as an integral plot device.
Although “Django” shares many things in common with “Kill Bill”, particularly the superhero stature of the two main characters, it is intrinsically different from the earlier film in that “Django” is meant to be taken seriously. Its moments of comic relief notwithstanding, the nature of its subject, the unblinking realism of many of its parts, and the sense of horror and pity it evokes in the viewer all make this abundantly clear. Yet time and again, Tarantino allows his need to give the viewer a visceral jolt to trump his artistic purpose. I would like to see him return to the more balanced intimacy of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.