Django Unchained is, in many ways, a re-telling of Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s previous film, re-set in pre-Civil War America. A powerful and violent force on the side of good (Christoph Waltz, who played the opposite force in Basterds) and a tortured and vengeful soul (Jamie Foxx’s titular Django) share a common goal in wishing to bring down a representation of evil (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie), and save Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). In Django, however, the two forces are united from the beginning instead of working independently, and there exists a master/apprentice relationship that, despite initial reservations, echoes teacher/student far more than owner/slave.
In fact, despite Quentin Tarantino’s reputation as a director willing to address race relations, Django Unchained is far from a movie about race and slavery, despite its appearance. Instead, it’s a postmodern western, one that appropriates those themes as it sees fit to tell a tale that, for its better half, is more about bounties, gunplay and revenge than anything serious. The film is propelled forward by a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, famous for his work on Spaghetti Westerns and particularly Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name Trilogy, and it’s full of Tarantino’s trademark blackly comic ultra-violence. That is to say, if you want a movie about race relations, look elsewhere; Django Unchained is most of what you think of when you hear “Quentin Tarantino movie.”
As expected, there’s plenty of homage to be paid, most obviously Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975). But where many of Tarantino’s recent films have been carried away by their postmodern hipness, often feeling like self-congratulatory winks from Tarantino to himself and bonus points for the viewers who catch on, Django Unchained rarely feels indulgent in its re-appropriation. There is, however, one major exception: The naming of Christoph Waltz’ character as Dr. King Schultz, a re-appropriation of Martin Luther King as a bounty-hunting but sympathetic white man. At first glance, it almost works; King Schultz is against slavery (or claims to be, though later details neither confirm nor deny this stance), a brilliant strategist, and has a way with words that talk him out of danger on multiple occasions. But beneath the cool surface, he’s a man who always plans in a way that allows him to kill rather than capture, to dominate rather than compromise. He’s a re-imagination that is more offensive than thought-provoking and values surface over substance, the opposite of what insightful postmodernism attempts, and it’s a sore thumb when considering that Django is entirely devoid of subtext.
If you can overlook that (and it looks to me like hardly anyone has even noticed it), you are in for a good dose of fun. All three major players, but especially Waltz, give strong performances, and strong supporting work by Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson make this perhaps the best acted film in the director’s oeuvre. Even when the film begins to drag, its charm and novelty replaced by seriousness as hollow and simple as it is sudden, the acting keeps you involved. DiCaprio looks like he is having far more fun playing an unapologetic, thriving slave-owner than any actor ever should, and Waltz blends comedic timing with a delicate, matter-of-fact speech that give him the same air of reason he had in Basterds arguing indefensible causes. Foxx, meanwhile, is not given quite as much room, but as effective as a thoughtful but quietly angry ex-slave, revenge always on his mind.
In addition, Django looks polished indoors and out, and while it’s the outdoor shots that steal the show, capturing landscapes ranging from mountains to meadows, sunny or snowy, it’s the indoor shots that most enhance the film. The reds and browns of fine wood and pottery are never given the camera’s attention, mirroring the wealth of successful plantation owners, but they are always present, making clear the excess that was all too easy to achieve for those who least deserved it. It’s the only inkling of subtext on a film that is far too concerned with violence, laughs, and the “cool” image to say anything meaningful. All throughout, however, Tarantino’s command of the mise-en-scene is admirable, finding many poetic shots ranging from blood-splattering to shadows on the wall.
Indeed, there’s a fantastic love story to be told here, the slave who teams with a white bounty hunter to find and free the wife separated from him by their previous owner. And with a handful of chilling and appropriately hard-to-watch flashbacks throughout the film’s better half, it looks like that’s what Django will be. The characters are smart enough for the story to be affecting, Schultz’ strategies flawless through much of the film, while Django, despite learning all the time, already able to read, clearly aware of various forms of etiquette, always trying to master control over his emotions. And Broomhilda too, raised by a woman who cared enough about her to teach her German, is implied to be a lot smarter than she is ever given a chance to be. But Django never wants to be that story, brushing off its only scene with emotional potential in favor of a small laugh. Likewise, the most intriguing form of resistance and most compelling moral conflict in the entire film, Samuel L. Jackson’s loyal slave, is introduced just as the film begins to stray from its virtues. He is never developed enough to highlight the moral conflict between the slaves who seek to overthrow their masters and those who have been rewarded enough to stay loyal, patiently waiting for their freedom.
In fact, all those virtues, moments of character drama, and even the popcorn-munching fun is eventually revealed to be a long prologue, leading to a dinner-time conversation, which echoes far too closely the basement scene from Basterds. This version, however, never is able to work up the intensity that the equivalent in Basterds did, as the writing itself fails to compare and it also plays like a huge halt in an otherwise eventful action flick. This scene leads exactly where you think it will, but it also haphazardly prolongs the film and pushes it into its 20 worst and most unnecessary minutes.
Ultimately, Django betrays a promising start to become the second entry in Tarantino’s postmodern revisionism. It’s great to see slave-owners punished and the bi-racial pairing of good guys crack wise and kick ass, but it’s also far from thought provoking to do so, and for a film that spends such a long time promising to make you think, that it fails to deliver in a way that also loses its entertainment value is tremendously disappointing. Perhaps the most telling sign is in selection of music that Tarantino normally does so effectively. Many scenes are loaded with overblown pop music that distract from the action more than they enhance its tone, and he stirred up a minor controversy in refusing to include the ballad that Frank Ocean wrote for him claiming that “there just wasn’t a scene for it.” He made the right call, but that’s because no scene in Django has the unfettered emotion or honesty of Ocean’s ballad. Like its soundtrack, Django is brainless pop. Only production values redeem what is ultimately a popcorn-flick wearing an art film’s mask.