by Thom Yee
As Grace mentioned in her not-as-entirely-inadequate-as-usual review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, reviewing epic-length movies can be a bit tricky. There’re just too many things going on, literally, symbolically and metaphorically that it can be hard to get your bearings, sit down, write a review, and be satisfied with what you just wrote. Though Django Unchained isn’t quite the epic that The Hobbit will prove to be over the course of three films… it is, at least, also a three-hour movie. And, of course, obviously… Quentin Tarantino.
It’s nearly impossible to have a discussion of any Tarantino movie without discussing his previous films, their inspirations, and film in general. Tarantino movies, though occupying a very insular and specific space in the movie landscape, are not at all self-contained. Whether you subscribe to the Tarantino universe theory — the realer-than-real and movie-movie universes — or you’ve just noticed things like Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna burgers coming up more than once, Tarantino films aren’t meant to just be seen and catalogued in the back of your memory. They’re fan favourites, film-school case studies, indelible parts of our culture, deeply polarizing, and universally loved all at once. Especially after seeing films as uniquely diverse yet stylistically similar as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, it almost gets to the point where there’s no point in examining anything Tarantino. Almost. There are foregone conclusions when it comes to Quentin Tarantino that, though you may resist them, you really can’t escape. You know it’ll at least be good. You know it may be beyond anything you had hoped for. You know that if you’re initially disappointed, the film will still rattle around in your brain long enough and loudly enough that you’ll eventually have to see it again.
Django Unchained falls into that last category.
So up until a few minutes ago, as in I just did this before starting the review, I had only a passing knowledge of what Django is — a spaghetti western with many quasi-sequels, and… too old for me to seriously consider watching. Sorry old-movie fans. A few minutes ago, however, I decided to at least look it up and watch the trailer to familiarize myself with the original. Because I owe it to my readers (as if there are any) to write reviews with integrity (as if such a thing exists). ‘Cause that’s the kind of person I am (as if I was actually a real person). And man, those old trailers with that old-timey narration. One of the biggest things you learn as a writer (as if I am one) is the concept of “show, don’t tell.” Another thing we’re taught to strive for, however, is originality, and those old trailers are refreshingly and remarkably amazing and original when they flat out say things like “… a mystery man appears, with a sad, impenetrable face” or “… an audacious man of action, capable of a tender, hopeless love which could only last a day” or “A new, ruthless, violent film” (with “new”, “ruthless”, and “violent” appearing in on-screen text).
As if those things weren’t obvious.
Watching the Django trailer makes it even clearer just where Django Unchained is coming from. From the way Jamie Foxx’s Django fires his gun to the way certain characters are dressed to the musical score (and like every Tarantino movie), Django Unchained manages to be overtly reminiscent of its inspirations while being satisfyingly unique.
Everything you need to know about Django Unchained you’ll find in the trailer. And I’m sure by now you’re all fairly aware of it. The film is by no means a confusing or heavily plotted movie, but you just have to watch it. It’s all there, and relaying the movie’s events in text really doesn’t do it justice. With Tarantino films, it’s all in the execution, though this is possibly one of the least Tarantino-esque movies I’ve ever seen of his. You can really feel a sense of restraint on the part of the director to tell a largely linear story that allows the events themselves to propel the film forward. It’s not full of non-sequiturs, there aren’t a lot of background characters with their own backstories, inappropriate language is kept to a restrained, appropriate level, and there aren’t long stretches of nothing but dialogue. It’s even got one laugh-out-loud scene with a Jonah Hill cameo that’s very humorous, but not very clever (with Tarantino, it’s usually the other way around). In contrast to movies dripping in Tarantino-isms like Kill Bill or Death Proof, Django Unchained is a film that merely benefits from being directed by Tarantino rather than being defined by that fact. Django Unchained is, at its core, a grindhouse revenge flick, and Tarantino’s ability to stay on the side of clearly entertaining rather than the cerebrally provocative serves the film well. It doesn’t directly matter that Django Unchained is about black slavery just before the Civil War. Or more precisely, it doesn’t matter unless it matters to you. Django Unchained is about as far from a political film, an art house film, or a particularly contemplative film as it can be. But you’ll still think about it for days after seeing it.
Christoph Waltz gives a standout performance as Dr. King Schultz, Django’s benefactor and progenitor. In Waltz, Tarantino has found a perfectly formed performer who knows exactly what the director is going for. He’s incredibly likable, even whimsical, without falling into a pit of Joss Whedon-esque fanwankery. Though most of us share Schultz’s revulsion at this world’s racial sensibilities, Waltz carries Schultz’ disgust for the slave trade with such style that it’s hard to walk out of the theatre without feeling even better about not being racist. Unless you are racist. Racists probably won’t like Django Unchained. Then again, racists don’t like a lot of things.
Leonardo DiCaprio nearly steals the show as Monsieur Calvin Candie (he insists on being called that, even though he doesn’t speak French). Probably the most out-and-out Tarantino character in the entire movie, DiCaprio is appallingly charming as the villain. I also like that he believes in phrenology. I don’t know if studying skull shapes for intellectual content was a generally accepted practice in 1858 (“You have the sloping brow of a stagecoach tilter”) or if it’s just a funny thing to bring up, but the idea of phrenology is almost endlessly entertaining. Similarly, Don Johnson’s “Big Daddy” Bennett is among my favourite film racists.
After all of the film’s performance highlights, it’s disappointing that the title character can’t be held in the same high regard. It’s not that Django himself is disappointing, nor is Jamie Foxx not fully embodying the character; the Django character just doesn’t have the same screen presence as the others. It’s easy to see why as this film acts as Django’s origin story, but Django Unchained isn’t the type of film to have sequels. Tarantino doesn’t do sequels and Django’s character arc is largely complete by the film’s end. Where Dr. Schultz, M. Candie and Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen emerge into our view of the film fully formed, Django has a ways to go before becoming the Django we all expect to find. That all makes sense, but until the end, he’s just not quite the badass we’re looking for.
In making a final judgment and cataloguing Django Unchained away in my brain right beside Inglourious Basterds, I think this is probably the most subdued Tarantino film yet. It’s the kind of movie that will grow on audiences and myself the further we get from that first viewing and the closer we get to our next. Django Unchained, like every Tarantino movie, begs for multiple viewings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I would give it a higher score if I came back to review it a year from now. It’s a very careful and measured film in some ways, and I would call it Tarantino’s least psychotic work yet. In other words, the ‘P’ is silent.
Django Unchained final score: 8.5
On the Edge
- Something that’s easy to forget about Tarantino movies is how badly, after watching them, you feel the immediate need to buy the soundtrack. The Django Unchained soundtrack is, on balance, equal parts amazing and self-indulgent. Buy it now.
- Goddamn, I love Zoe Bell. Here’s a great list of some of the other more-easily-missed characters from the movie.
- One of these days I’ll finally convince myself to go see a movie that opens on Christmas Day on Christmas Day. It’s not as if I want to see my family on Christmas.