Films by Quentin Tarantino aren't exactly Halley's Comet, but for a while there, they didn't come as often as some filmgoers would have liked. And while the filmmaker seems to be back at his pace of delivering a film every two or three years, the arrival of a new Tarantino picture generally makes the cinema world sit up and take notice. And as always, opinions on his films vary wildly from film to film, from cinephile to cinephile.
As such we thought we'd try something a little different with three takes on "Django Unchained" from The Playlist staff that are generally pretty divergent. It's not a completely comprehensive good, bad, and ugly breakdown on the three hour epic, but it's close. So without further ado, reviews from reviewer Gabe Toro, podcast editor Erik McClanahan and Rodrigo Perez below.
There are three movies that make up “Django Unchained.” All three are vital, alive, and further proof that Quentin Tarantino is one of the most distinct and relevant filmmakers working today. The first opens on a dusty road on the eve of the Civil War, as the avuncular Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) claims chain gang slave Django (Jamie Foxx) by violently disposing of his two owners (one of them is James Remar, who crops up later in the second of these three films in a different role). After an extended visit to a small town, wherein Schultz upends their social order by teaming with his slave to remove a wanted man out of the sheriff’s office, “Django Unchained” has proven its prerogative in upsetting a certain status quo.
This subversion continues into a visit to the home of rich folk Big Daddy (Don Johnson), who hems and haws upon learning Django is a free man, and therefore deserving of a more elaborate hierarchal treatment from his own slaves. Schultz employs Django to spot his former slaveowners, wanted criminals according to the legal papers Schultz removes from his dandy coat pocket as if it were bottomless. Instead, an empowered Django attacks the three savages who caused him pain, and Tarantino allows him, and us, to revel in the moment when he grabs up a whip and lashes out at one of them with merciless vigor. Shot in slow motion, not very different from how we’ve seen this moment play out in historical dramas, Tarantino builds to the violence with his unbridled bloodlust on full display. At this moment, a stand-up-and-cheer sequence, we’re seeing Tarantino Unchained.
Establishing Django and Schultz as the meanest bounty hunters of the south, the picture then merges into its second installment. In search of Django’s bride Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the duo find themselves at Candyland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like the film, characters take the opportunity to play nice, adhering to the social strata of the time, forcing us to give up the more overt subversion of the first film in favor of pure genre immersion. Candyland is a place of sickening violence, as Candie hosts Mandingo brawls that allow for his black slaves to battle to the death. When one does not comply, he’s torn apart by dogs. Tarantino’s film is not as explicit as it can be, yet it still resonates when the realization sets in (a realization cinephile Tarantino knows all too well) that slavery is usually treated in cinema with kid gloves. A brief reference to “nigger holes” where dead slaves are stacked and discarded tells us all we need to know.
Candie’s largesse and Southern-gentleman values house a deep disregard for humanity. He is first and foremost a capitalist, of course (a point not lost on contemporary audiences, hopefully) but one who shows such open disdain towards his slaves that they are acknowledged only as property to be exchanged for cash in transactions. While he’s always had a jagged edge to his adult performances, DiCaprio’s casting here is not unlike Henry Fonda’s in “Once Upon A Time In The West,” a strong right turn into darkness compared to a career as a true-blue American leading man. DiCaprio lacks the raw talent to go full ham (or full H.A.M.) for a part like this, which means what we’re dealing with is not one of Tarantino’s more colorful, wacky bad guys. DiCaprio goes the other way, playing up the inhumanity within this man’s pragmaticism. Like Schultz and Django, we’re trapped in Candyland, forced to listen to Candie’s unpleasant dissertations on the slave trade and the accurate uses of slaves. Growing up as the scion to a rich family, this is all he knows, and DiCaprio captures this myopia to a stomach-churning degree. It’s very much the year’s most upsetting performance by a major movie star.
The third film, and jankiest by far, involves Django’s quest for revenge, and Tarantino’s desire to thumb his nose at the establishment. The bloodshed is comically messy, with squibs exploding as if they were stored in condoms, thrown by frat boys. There’s a little bit of farcical spoof humor in place as well, with Django’s strut now accompanied by contemporary soundtrack rhymes from Rick Ross, with the irreverent sass-talk of Samuel L. Jackson’s postmodern Sambo as Candie’s reliable assistant Stephen, clouding the audience’s sympathies. On its own, this third leg of “Django Unchained” is a blast, funny, fast and excessively violent, even if its entirely nonsensical. The verbal jousting between Django and Stephen (an overt Uncle Tom in every sense of the word — wonder what Quentin's old friend Spike thinks) is a highlight, particularly with Foxx’s sneering, swaggy characterization versus Jackson’s wide-eyed anger; Jackson in particular hasn’t been this engaged in years, even if it’s under a thick coat of black makeup and fake jowls, choices of purposely questionable taste.
The question remains: what do these movies have to do with each other? Where is the similarity between the excessively cartoonish giant tooth that bounces on top of former dentist Schultz’s wagon, and Candie’s disquieting lecture on a black’s skull? Does a moment where KKK members argue over the size of hood eyeholes have any relation to the nasty brutality shown to Django’s one-note pursuit Broomhilda? And when Django teaches his horse to pimp walk (yes, this happens), it seems as if we’re a long ways from the upsetting shot of a battered Django peeling off his tattered winter rags, revealing a brutally-battered bare back. “Django Unchained” is an insane mess in several ways, showing one of our great filmmakers unfocused and chaotic, attempting racial and political insight while also satiating his own cinephila. A moment when Foxx’s Django crosses paths with a nameless man seems to prove the point: as servants hustle to clean up and dispose of the dead remains of a bloody, disturbing Mandingo fight, we learn our hero is face-to-face with Franco Nero, the original Django himself. The torch of cinema history is passed, and we’re meant to ignore the corpses lying right behind it all. [B] — Gabe Toro
A Quentin Taratino movie is an event. The director, now middle-aged and more than 20 years into his filmmaking career, is thinking about his legacy these days. He’s talked lately about hanging it up after ten films, hoping to get out before he loses touch and starts making "old, limp, flaccid-dick movies." The manic, chatty writer/director believes that one terrible film would cost him three good ones, as far as his rating is concerned.
His latest (eighth, for those counting) film, “Django Unchained,” will do no harm to that rating. It’s funny as hell and full of glorious waves of ultra-violence, yet a little unwieldy. The misgivings I have about the final product never come close to sinking this ship. It probably won’t be the awards horse that “Inglourious Basterds” was, but who cares when you’re having this good a time at the cinema. This is the most flat-out entertaining film of 2012.
While it shares many elements with ‘Basterds’ – the period setting, anachronistic songs, approaching an historical taboo in a big genre adventure, a wide cast of characters and a literally explosive finale – ‘Django’ is more akin to the “Kill Bill” films, especially ‘Vol. 2’. ‘Basterds’ was a masterwork, something Tarantino was wrestling with for more than a decade, as any reader of Peter Biskind’s excellent “Down and Dirty Pictures” knows. After the box office failure and, in some circles, critical pummeling heaped on “Death Proof,” he had something to prove. He was hungry again, and the result was one of his best pictures to date, if not his best.
“Django Unchained” sees Tarantino taking his love of spaghetti westerns and putting it through his post-modern, meat grinder revisionist sensibility. What comes out – he’s calling it "a Southern" – is a blast to behold. For better or worse, this is what a follow up to a huge success looks like from Tarantino. It’s impressive how so many elements from Leone and Corbucci films fit so nicely into this pre-Civil War slavery epic. Though he’s dabbled in the genre before, especially in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” you can feel the excitement and pure nerd joy in every shot of ‘Django’. Some will call it self-indulgent masturbation, others will defend its epic epicness with nary a scruple. Neither is wrong. I for one am ecstatic mainstream American cinema is getting the shot in the arm it so badly needed this year, and right at the finish.
‘Django’ has issues. At times it’s blatantly obvious where significant trims could have been made to the bloated running time. I applaud the unconventional narrative, and all the fun, good stuff we get in it, but did we really need the multiple endings? Especially when there’s not much tension or surprise as to where things are going, unlike the batshit insane climax to ‘Basterds’. This is perhaps due to the loss of editor Sally Menke, one of Tarantino’s most important collaborators, who tragically died in 2010. In her place is Fred Raskin, who worked as assistant editor on both “Kill Bill” films and several Paul Thomas Anderson projects. As strong a force as Tarantino must be on set, it always seemed that Menke, like Thelma Schoonmaker to Martin Scorsese, was his perfect foil, keeping his indulgence mostly at bay.
The biggest surprise is the absence of a strong female character, which has been a strength of all Tarantino films save for “Reservoir Dogs.” Kerry Washington does fine work as Broomhilda, and thankfully her most difficult scenes are done as tastefully as possible while still remaining true to the setting and time, but her role amounts to little else than a damsel in distress. She’s Django’s princess, needing to be saved by her man. Yes, she attempts to escape her fate, but never pulls it off.
The four main leads, and many of the supporting players, do great work though. Christoph Waltz is wonderful, once again having a blast bringing Tarantino’s verbose script to life as the smartest character in the film. What a treat it is to see him play a good guy here. He’s just barely bested by Leonardo DiCaprio, who finds a perfect role in Calvin Candie, the bratty heir to a plantation (awesomely named Candie Land) who owns Broomhilda and thus is the object of Django’s vengeance. If this film wins an Oscar, it will be for DiCaprio’s performance. Samuel L. Jackson is also quite good, and very funny, in his role as Calvin’s long time servant.
As the film’s hero Django, Jamie Foxx is more subtle than one would think is necessary. His arc from uneducated slave in a chain gang to the fastest gun in the south is full of nuances, and he’s a badass in the many gunplay scenes. There are clear parallels to Django’s character and Tarantino’s career in the film industry. The story goes that Monte Hellman and Terry Gilliam were big supporters (they would be Dr. King Schultz in this scenario) of his “Reservoir Dogs” script at the Sundance Institute. And Tarantino took their guidance and learned quickly how to become a great filmmaker, much like Django’s rise.
“Django Unchained” is most successful as a kick ass western adventure tale (it’s actually much less a revenge story than was originally touted) that lays waste to other, statelier slave movies. “Roots” this is not, but we didn't expected that from Tarantino. It’s one of the funniest films in his oeuvre. This writer laughed hysterically as Don Johnson’s gang of fools fumbled around and complained about their Klan hoods, to name but one memorable funny sequence.
Will Tarantino finish after making his tenth film, as he’s been saying? We hope not. Cinema is better off with him making movies, though we could do with him staying far away from acting (why he tried an Australian accent here is beyond us). As it stands right now, in this writer’s opinion, “Death Proof” still remains his worst movie, but none of his flicks are flaccid. He’s still one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today. [B+] – Erik McClanahan
Quentin Tarantino has said more than once in the last few years that if he retires, which seems like the prospective plan, he would like to eventually just write novels. And this writer would argue that the "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker is already doing so and then adapting them for the screen. Which brings us to his latest, the Antebellum spaghetti western/slave vengeance picture "Django Unchained," which has the unstructured, long winded architecture and pace of a novel — or at least a novel that doesn’t have to concern itself with the format demands of a visual medium that lends itself to around a two hour experience. All to its own detriment.
As such, "Django Unchained" isn't much of an adaptation for the screen as it is a completely faithful distended adaptation of a screenplay that reads better as a book. That's not to say films must adhere to the three-act structure ("The Master" is a great example of bucking the design), but if you're making an almost three hour film that certainly also feels like three hours, the rhythm and construct of fits and starts (dull and then exciting burts) followed by long passages of dialogue, could use a rethink.
"Django Unchained" has very little of a forward engine, the kind that propels most movies forward and creates momentum. It spends at least one leisurely hour of its running time setting up a discursive narrative — Jamie Foxx’s titular slave character is rescued by a Dr. Schultz, a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, in exchange for helping him track down the Brittle Brothers (a trio of thuggish brothers that have a bounty on their head). This leads them to a plantation owned by Don Johnson, lots of flashbacks of slavery and lashings, and eventually lots of blood when the brothers are brutally and comically dispensed with. Six months later (as we enter the middle third of the movie), after the duo have become bounty hunting partners, the pair finally set off in search of their main goal — rescuing Djagno’s wife Broomhilda, a slaved played by Kerry Washington who has been sold to a nasty Mandingo baron and plantation owner Calvin Candie (played with delicious relish by Leonardo DiCaprio). And so it's not until the point that the actual story begins.
"Django Unchained” also possess little suspense. Django and Schultz come to Candie’s plantation with a subterfuge of being novices who want to enter the Mandigo fighting game, but actually are looking for a way to fool Candie into selling Broomhilda. The two are welcomed with some traditional Southern hospitality, but soon, Candie’s ornery house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) discovers their plot with nothing more than an observational eye and a hunch. Suffice to say, Candie feels duped, gets very angry and then hurt feelings lead to violence. But even that violence is unnecessary. Without revealing too much, the faux climax in “Django Unchained,” which can possibly be described as part one of the three extended third act parts, doesn’t have stakes to sell the sizzle. The situations are resolved and all parties can leave peacefully, but essentially pride gets in the way. Which isn’t really much of a credible motivator to keep the story going on, but alas, it does. From there, “Django Unchained” keeps going and going…and going, with a meandering story of capture, freedom, revenge, revenge and more revenge.
Touted as a love story, the suggestion itself is a sentiment funnier than 90% of all the jokes in “Django Unchained” because its dispassionate approach has nary a feeling. And whoever described the film as an homage to “Blazing Saddles” over Twitter has apparently never seen a Mel Brooks film before. The cartoonish ultra violence in the film is especially twice removed. Buckets of blood fly fast and loose in the third act, but with no one to really care about or root for — not even Django who inadvertently becomes the least interesting character of all, yet leads the film. As such the film is especially empty.
There are things to like about "Django Unchained" if taken on their own merits. Leonardo DiCaprio makes for an especially malevolent villain and as the role takes him out of his usual comfort zone of "the moody protagonist," he shines and you want him to continue down this unusual path. While Schultz is essentially a mild variation of Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa character — an unnecessarily verbose and erudite German — the actor brings a likeable warmth to the role that goes beyond those obvious notions of Tarantino being on the other side of the camera, mouthing along with the words he clearly has fallen in love with. Jamie Foxx too is rather strong when he's given something to do, but oddly, even though his character is the center of the film, he's an afterthought in service of the more colorful DiCaprio and Waltz. Musically, the drama is also rather enjoyable and it’s easily the best use of music in a Tarantino film in some time. The anachronistic selections of songs by Rick Ross, John Legend, James Brown and 2Pac far more effective than the out-of-nowhere appearance of David Bowie in "Inglourious Basterds."
But apart from some individual moments worth savoring, "Django Unchained" doesn't coalesce or add up to much. While the film has a few moments of humor, generally courtesy of DiCaprio or Jackson, the film is nowhere as funny as it believes it is. And yes, with its casual pace and guffaw-worthy little jokes, the picture does have an almost disturbing air of self-satisfaction — the cherry of which on top is a Tarantino cameo, that much like the scene itself, is completely superfluous. Such is the problem with “Django Unchained,” a bloated, complacent narrative that saunters along at a delicate pace with scene after scene that, when everything is tallied all up, reveals that many of them simply don't need to be there. If any other filmmaker in the world delivered this film to Harvey Weinstein, the shears would come out. Alas, Tarantino is apparently above the conventions of narrative, and audiences (and critics) tend to give him a big pass.
While Tarantino has called ‘Django’ a chance to hold up America’s ugly past up like a mirror, this is empty rhetoric and the picture has almost nothing of substance to say socially or politically about race or slavery other than it was unfortunate and atrocious — seemingly the only two comments the filmmaker can make (as he did with WWII). Ultimately, it all seems like an excuse for bloody revenge, superfluously flowery dialogue, homages to genres he loves and a cool song or two.
"Django Unchained" might be called a love story or a comedy, but it’s not particularly funny or moving and it's terribly self-indulgent. Flamboyance and cartoonishness rule, there's hardly a moment of genuine emotion, and most overtures in that direction are superficial. As a picture ostensibly about love, revenge and the ugliness of slavery, "Django Unchained" has almost zero subtext and is a largely soulless bloodbath, in which the history of pain and retribution is coupled carelessly with a cool soundtrack and some verbose dialogue. Though it might just entertain the shit out of the less discerning. [C-] – Rodrigo Perez