by Tony Dayoub
The last time I discussed Quentin Tarantino's films at length here was a little over 3 years ago when I got into it with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, defending Inglourious Basterds (20009) as more than just a "film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial." Frankly, I didn't find the revisionism in Basterds—particularly the blatant recasting of Hitler's death as part of a gory massacre in a locked theater auditorium—to be offensive or even problematic. Basterds' climax was characteristic of the propaganda-like take on the American war films of the 40s that Tarantino was riffing on, movies in which Americans were clearly the "white hats" and the Axis were not only their opposite number; they were racially stereotypical, incompetent goons. Besides which, the violent death of Hitler, and not by his own hand, seemed like the kind of wish-fulfillment narrative few would admit finding unsatisfying on at least a primal level. Django Unchained is more of a mixed bag, another revisionist take on history by Tarantino, one that finds the director losing the thread of the conversation he himself instigates. And in this case, it's difficult to ignore his inclination to overindulge.
Django Unchained's first two hours (the film is a lengthy 165 minutes) are sufficiently compelling. Though the title, opening theme, and a cameo by actor Franco Nero suggest a strong connection to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 western Django, the only obvious relation is its "revenge film" framework. Django (Jamie Foxx) shoulders his dream for being reunited with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) the way Nero dragged a heavy coffin in Django. The weight of the past seems heavier on Foxx's Django than that of the shackles attached to the slave, chains from which he is soon unburdened by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He purchases Django, promising him his freedom and his help in reuniting him with Hildy if he helps him find the fugitive Brittle Brothers. The first hour of the film blows by surprisingly fast for being so strictly an expository one. In this opening act Tarantino sets up the style of Django Unchained simply. The film's present, 1858, is an odd fusion of spaghetti western and 70s American western tropes, eschewing the obvious Leone references for ones recalling Corbucci and even the largely unknown Blake Edwards western, Wild Rovers (1971). But Broomhilda's last name (Von Shaft) and the photographic and aural qualities of Django's flashbacks portend of a sort of proto-blaxploitation connection Tarantino is trying to set up in the text. What this means is that Tarantino the film geek thinks it's cool if he establishes Django as the sort of cowboy precursor to the Ron O'Neal, Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson antiheroes of the 70s (a piece of trivia he apparently copped to at 2012's Comic-Con). It's this kind of fanboy noise that distracts from the more intriguing ethical implications raised by Django Unchained.
For as long as the film is commenting on the issue of slavery directly, Django Unchained is as successful as Inglourious Basterds is. That the first outfit that Django has an opportunity to select for himself after his liberation by Schultz is a foppish, blue page boy-style one might make for a striking visual sight gag. But it also speaks to what an inexperienced slave suddenly freed into this world might actually consider to be "fancy pants." And moreover, it makes the blue-clad Django's relentless whipping of his former overseer Lil Raj Brittle—at near the one-hour mark, the way-too-early apex of the film—all the more devastating, embarrassing, and gratifying for anyone harboring the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasies Tarantino believes he is touching upon here. Ditto when it comes to a scene that could be right out of Blazing Saddles, where plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and a collection of moronic Klansmen (played by the likes of Jonah Hill and Tarantino himself) argue about the size of the eyeholes in their white sheets just before a raid. The blackly comic interlude dissipates the ominous power of the preceding shot of white-hooded vigilantes astride galloping horses with torches ablaze, a visual pseudo-quote of D.W. Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation (1915).
The second hour of Django Unchained gets even bolder with Django forced to go where the morally righteous Schultz cannot, playing an expert on Mandingo fighting in order to rescue Hildy from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). An initially reluctant Django characterizes the role he is about to play as lower than that of a "house n----r." But it's hard to imagine anyone lower than the kowtowing Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of household at Candie's plantation, Candieland. Here is where Tarantino comes up with an interesting germ of an idea. Django is forced to choose between his own identity and the passion he feels for his wife by playing a part of someone who makes his own people brutally fight each other to the death. He is pitted against the seemingly befuddled and innocuous Stephen, a man who perpetrates his own kind of black-on-black violence. Stephen is far more dangerous than he allows others to see, smarter than his master and more wicked—acting solely out of the desire to preserve the sorry station he's carved out for himself in life as a black man who keeps others of his race down in order to stand above them. Nearly as fascinating is the tension between the German Schultz, noble and oblivious to the reasons why slavery even exists, and the Francophile Candie, a shallow pretender who prefers to be called Monsieur but doesn't know a word of French. Tarantino provides Waltz the chance to play a man as decent as his Basterds character was evil. (In a neat bit of business, Waltz appropriates the typical evildoer's convention of twirling his mustache for his good-hearted Schultz.) It is through Schultz that we get much of Tarantino's perspective on inequality, Schultz directing Django in his undercover performances in similar ways to how the filmmaker directs his actors. As Django gets lost in self-loathing because of how low he must sink to rescue Hildy—the smiling face of the appeasing conniver Stephen a constant reminder—Schultz squirms in disgust at the sights he must endure in Candie's presence: a runaway Mandingo fighter mauled to death by dogs, a naked, heat-stricken Hildy carried out of a hotbox used to punish rebellious slaves. And as long as DiCaprio, Foxx, Jackson and Waltz all occupy the screen together the film seems to be building to something significant, something that will justify Tarantino's propensity, in this film as well as his many others, for generous helpings of the N-word in his dialogue... a showdown that may transcend physical dimensions and turn to something ideological.
Instead, Django Unchained goes on for an additional 45 minutes that degenerates into pure carnage. Foxx suddenly becomes the action version of the "magical negro" stereotype so prevalent in recent film history, somehow managing the impossible task of talking his way out of indentured service to a mining company we've just been informed is only one step above Satan himself. This after a scene in which Django is hung upside down, fully-frontally nude, threatened with castration and somehow gets a reprieve from Stephen, someone we have no reason to believe would be so generous nor in such an important position of power (post-Candie's exit from the film) to grant such a dispensation. Django becomes the only multi-dimensional black person in the story, a man who loves, fights, mourns, hurts, strategizes and executes in a way all of the others are seemingly incapable of. Yet the stakes dwindle down considerably to the most simple-minded of all: rescuing Hildy and punishing Stephen and the corrupt denizens of Candieland. The extended shootout that opens the final act recalls the ultra-violent climaxes of a couple of Tarantino's most recent films. But it's less the cinematic subversion of Inglourious Basterds' theatre massacre than the unbridled but reductive glee of Kill Bill: Volume I's Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. So if you leave Django Unchained a bit spent and empty, it's not hard to understand why. Unlike Basterds, the potency of Tarantino's historical revisionism doesn't feel earned, slowly fizzling in the film's last third as the director starts relying on the most stereotypical characteristics that distinguish his films to amp up the action. It all leads to a flashy but soulless finale that instantly reduces what at times felt like the most entertaining kind of polemic to pure cinematic masturbation.