Originally posted at aintitcool.com, December 19th 2012
Pardon me the inarticulate nature of the following critique, but I believe it will prove to be as appropriate a summation of the film’s qualities as I can muster:
Django Unchained is a motherfucker.
It sounds like David Milch, stoned out of his gourd. It looks like a Bierstadt, except for when it looks like a Bosch. It is an ambling, mild-mannered nightmare; a bloody, mean-spirited, exhilarating wet mess of a movie.
Quentin Tarantino’s western plays much like Quentin Tarantino’s war film: It pulps America’s mythologizing of its own past. Django is set in a pre-Civil War South that is equal parts lurid and goofy. The star of this painterly cartoon of a western is Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is purchased and then set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, who needs Django’s help to collect on a bounty. Thus sets in motion the first third of the film: A buddy comedy about killing white folks and selling their corpses back to the government.
Once Django’s freedom is secured, he and Waltz hatch a plan to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is a major player in the Mandingo Fight Game. Thus sets in motion the middle of the film: A con-movie about earning the good graces of a hopped-up rube so as to take from him things he doesn’t deserve.
Once Django and Schultz make it to Calvin’s plantation, “Candyland,” they run into Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) a toad of a man who throws a wrench into our heroes’ plans. Thus sets in motion the last third of the film: A revenge epic of head-spinning violence and depravity. It is this last third where the film thoroughly earns its status as a complete, total, unrelenting, unimaginable motherfucker of a movie.
You may ask “But is being a motherfucker a good thing or a bad thing?” The answer is “Yes.”
This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. But not in the annoying, eye-roll inducing way Death Proof was. While many seem to know him for his violence, Tarantino has always, first and foremost, loved the words that fall out of his giant noggin, and the salty-sweet syllables he puts in Waltz’s mouth are delivered so melodiously, it’s easy to forgive Django Unchained for spending much of its runtime pleasantly shooting the shit instead of shooting up hillbillies.
Django isn’t much of a protagonist for most of his own movie. He spends a lot of it with a wide-eyed, inquisitive look on his face, alternately curious and bemused about the world he finds himself inhabiting. It’s a smart choice – when you’ve got a tour guide as good, as charming as Waltz is, you don’t mind just letting him lead, and I’d imagine many in the audience will spend a lot of time goggling at the movie with a similar look on their face for most of the first hour. The reasons are two:
1) Robert Richardson is one of the best cinematographers that ever lived, and this movie is goddamned gorgeous thanks to his work on the film.
2) Quentin really indulges his second-favorite fetish, the one that puts racial slurs in his actor’s mouths; One slur in particular.
I know its period appropriate, but the experience of hearing that word casually fall out of 98% of the white cast’s face is jarring at first. Except for Walton Goggins, who as Hollywood’s current reigning King of the Peckerwoods I sort of just expect to utter that word at least once or twice. But Tom Wopat is in this fucking movie and considering how old you are, hearing Luke Duke utter the word his backwoods moonshinin’ ass never got to say on television is a bit of a jolt.
Don’t take this as an expression of dissatisfaction with the film; Django Unchained is almost constantly entertaining, even as its all sorts of sprawled out and irresponsible. Hell, that’s part of the charm, really. But its pleasures are edged. There’s a blend of unease and delight in things like Don Johnson as a dandified Colonel Sanders, succumbing to frustration as his carefully planned lynching turns into a whiny kvetch-fest; the oily, greasy way Leonardo DiCaprio pushes Tarantino’s words out between his browned teeth; the willingness of Samuel L. Jackson to nakedly wallow in total debasement. The character he’s playing might be named Stephen, but he’s channeling Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks so completely, you’d swear the wetness slicking up his protruding lower lip was made of pure, liquefied self-hate.
When Tarantino does get on with it, the violence is gaudy as hell, blood leaving bullet-riddled bodies via squibs that seem to work by dropping a firecracker into a jar of Smuckers strawberry jam. The cruelty of the South is never softpedaled in Django Unchained: You will see frequent, disturbing acts perpetrated on slaves. You will see that violence repaid in kind, often with that same queasy delight buzzing under the visceral thrills.
DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is some repugnant shit, and his performance is kind of amazing. At one point he lacerates the hell out of his hand by smashing a glass for emphasis, and he doesn’t break character, or even acknowledge that he’s badly bleeding, not until he has a chance to use that blood as a means to prove how deranged Candie is, smearing that blood all over Kerry Washington’s shocked face.
Washington is one of the more problematic parts of the movie, in that she doesn’t do shit but cry, look pretty, or look scared. In fact, most of the black people in this movie aside from Django and Stephen, don’t do shit but cry or look scared, ineffectually goggling at the audacity of Django the way Django goggled at the world upon being set free in it. It could have been worse for Broomhilda; Tarantino decided to cut two scenes in which she is raped. A scene in which a man burns off another man’s nipples was also deleted. This is what restraint looks like in Tarantino-land, and the movie is better for it. Django Unchained already spends long stretches of its movie doing a delicate balancing act, smudging the pencil-thin line between outrageous and tasteless as it is.
But when Django fully comes into his own with about a half-hour to go, the fresh hell he justifiably unleashes is probably the most adrenaline-infused thing Tarantino’s ever done. Bullets flying, blood splashing, Tupac and James Brown screaming on the soundtrack at the enemies Django is cutting down with no remorse. Jamie Foxx’s performance is underplayed and understated. He is maybe the most traditionally western thing about the movie, his Django a jut-jawed, squinting blend of Franco Nero and Clint Eastwood, delivering most of his lines through gritted teeth in a low, growling whisper, a triumphant portrait of stoic bad-assery.
The film doesn’t really ask too many questions of its viewers. There will be moments when large chunks of the audience find themselves laughing with clownish buffoonery instead of laughing at it, missing out on the moments of commentary Tarantino too rarely allows himself. In a film that is probably too long by 30 minutes, I wish he’d chosen to indulge his thoughtful side just a little bit more.
But Tarantino is most effective when he gives into his passion to share with you the things he thinks are really, really cool. Even after decades of success and acclaim, down deep, Tarantino is still an excited video store clerk who wants you to take a risk on something awesome you might not check out otherwise, and reap the rewards contained within. Django Unchained is full of rich, dirty, bloody bounties that sometimes cost just a mite too much to enjoy unreservedly.