Tambay’s Epic ‘Django Unchained’ Review – Kill The Noise (Nothing Is Silent)

Tambay's Epic 'Django Unchained' Review - Kill The Noise (Nothing Is Silent)

Warning: This is long. As you can see at the bottom, it’s broken up into 4 pages, so just click to go to the next page to continue reading.

And by “Kill The Noise,” I’m referring to all the chatter (both “for” and “against”) that began over a year ago, starting with my summer 2011 review/critique of the script, to actress/filmmaker and Quentin Tarantino confidant, Rie Rasmussen’s hyperbolic statements in the fall of last year, suggesting that the film would be nothing short of revolutionary, to the pre-release marketing for the film that really began in the spring, at the Cannes Film Festival, when we started to hear/read plugs for the film from its key cast and crew, collectively painting a picture of a mind-blowing, earth shattering, gruesome, heartwrenching, brutally honest slave narrative, that would, by the way, also be really entertaining and fun! Plugs (each met with similarly-spirited criticism) that carried into the summer and fall of this year, with the film’s release date looming.

The conversation happening in the press seemed to promise the can’t-miss movie event of the year.

However, now having seen the film, I’d once again say, quoting Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype; kill the noise! It’s not as grand, and imposing as the champions of the film have said; but neither is it as damning and exploitative as those who are against it want to believe.

I’m going to dive right into it, splitting my thoughts into 3 sections: The Good, The Bad, and then (no, not The Ugly) my Closing Statements. It’s a lot to read (my reviews tend to be lengthy, as long-time readers of this site will already know), so get comfy.

THE GOOD

– Thankfully, it’s quite different from the script I reviewed in summer 2011; several of the concerns I expressed in that review didn’t end up on screen. Maybe it means that Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson or Reginald Hudlin (obviously, I’m naming the key black folks who were involved in the making of the film) got in Quentin Tarantino’s (QT’s) ear and voiced similar concerns that some of us had expressed with regards to certain depictions of the film’s key black characters. In fact, I actually recall reports on this site that said QT was rewritting and reworking scenes, sometimes on the fly; and most recently, in an interview Courtney posted last week, with Howard Stern, QT revealed that he and Jamie Foxx worked together to redo parts of the ending. But, as I stated in my script review last year, and as many already know, what’s in the script isn’t necessarily what will end up on the screen. The script is like the first draft; the shooting is the second draft; and the editing is the third draft. So you can rest a bit easy, those who are concerned about any of the following items with regards to the film itself:

First, the concern that the relationship between Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schulz and Jamie Foxx’s Django was more of the usual teacher/student, master/apprentice relationship that we’ve come to expect. The reality is that it’s instead very much a partnership between the two men, and, thankfully, Django is very much his own man from the beginning of that relationship – driven and determined, with one goal, and one goal only, driving his every action – to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Shaft. In effect, they use each other to accomplish their individual goals, and form a bond in the process.

Second concern many had – there’s no what I’d called unnecessarily gratuitous or exploitative nudity, or scenes of sexual violence against Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda (or any other women in the movie, really); actually there’s very minimal nudity, which took me a bit by surprise. Some might say that it’s not representative of the period and circumtances in which the film takes place; but the common argument against that was the comparison to the lead female character in Inglorious Basterds who wasn’t depicted in any scenes or moments we’d identify as dehumanizing, or undignifying, as a Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied France. Some hoped that QT would afford Broomhilda a similar kind of “dignity,” if you will, in Django as he did Shoshanna in Basterds. And he does, for the most part. But I have a lot more to say about Kerry Washington as Broomhilda when I get to “The Bad” section, later in this review. However, you’d be glad to know that Django Unchained isn’t quite Mandinga (not Mandingo, but Mandinga, which came a year after Mandingo) – a movie that I’d say is pure exploitation, with its lengthy nude sex scenes between slaves and their masters; practically soft-core slave/master porn really. And if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I mean. But Django Unchained is most certainly not that.

A third concern, as I recall, had to do with whether this was just an exploitation movie that essentially trivializes an absolutely devastating American historical institution, whose effects are still being felt centuries later. I’d say that there two sides to this – and since I’m focusing on “The Good” at this time, I’ll just say that it’s not purely exploitation cinema (even though there’s clearly some blaxploitation influence). If I may use this example to illustrate my thoughts on this… I remember Spike Lee and Denzel Washington sharing their realization of the weight of the task at hand, when they set out to make Malcolm X in the 90s – telling themselves and each other that they simply could not “fuck it up,” because of the subject matter, as well as their recognition of/reverence for the man whose story they were telling, the era he lived in, what his struggle and accomplishments meant, the struggle itself, and more; and also understanding what it all meant to black America. After I watched Django, I asked myself that question of QT; as a white man with white man’s privilege – even though he’s also extremely well-informed and aware – was it evident in Django that he had a similar kind of reverence for the subject matter, the gravity and weight of it all, and its contributions to the black American experience today, and black people all over the world generally? As a white man with privilege, did he have his own, “I can’t fuck this up” moment, because of the story he sets out to tell in the film, and the institution he depicts? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I’m not in his head (although some might even question whether, as a white man, it’s his burden to bear). All I can do is go based on what I saw in the film, and interviews QT has given up until now. And I can say that I didn’t cringe at anything that would be described as exploitative, or trivialized, or mocking of the significance of the experience – well, except for the film’s villains, who were all so absurd and grotesque – essentially parodies, I felt. But more on the film’s villains when I get to “The Bad” section of this review. But in terms of QT’s reverence to the subject matter, and realizing its weight, I should remind you, lest we forget, that the goal here really is not necessarily to inform, or incite, but rather to entertain. And I’d say that for most who see it, it probably will do just that – entertain. In fact, despite all the pre-release talk from the cast and crew, selling the film as some gut-wrenching, intense, realistic story about slavery, as I noted in my intro, it’s not quite that – not to me anyway! If you were concerned about depictions of the kind of violence associated with slavery, there’s actually so very little of that, which might be a disappointment, if that’s something you were looking forward to. There’s actually very little of what I’d call *real* violence in the film – specifically, the kind of violence that was common against slaves. The film is about 2 1/2-hours long, and it’s at its most violent in the last 20 or so minutes, but, again, it’s not violence experienced by slaves. Not to spoil it, but in short, there are a series of shoot-outs – sequences that might even prove to be somewhat anticlimactic for some of you, who would prefer the kind of revenge that was less, shall we say, convenient, less finesse, and instead all id.

Fourth – other criticisms/concerns many of you had include the fact that a white filmmaker gets to tell this particular story; to that I can only say, get over it! Quentin Tarantino is one of a few directors in Hollywood who gets to play in whatever sandbox he likes, because, well, he’s Quentin Tarantino. He certainly has his share of critics, but, in general, audiences and critics alike, tend to love his work – enough of them anyway, which is why he’s able to play as much as he’s allowed to within the golden gates of Hollywood. Instead of being angry or frustrated with him and his privilege, we should instead be looking to those black folks in Hollywood with the power and influence to ensure that black filmmakers get to tell stories about those especially crucial parts of our experience, past and present; the same kind of motivation that inspired Spike Lee to make Malcolm X in the 1990s (partly to do so before a white filmmaker did it) – a film that Warner Bros. financed in the majority, but Spike sought the funding of Hollywood’s black elite to help finish.

And finally, addressing a fifth and last common concern. If it’s not already clear, it’s most certainly not Nat Turner’s revolt; and yes, there is a white character in Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz’s character) who assists Django on his quest to find and rescue his bride; so it’s not strictly Django’s story. But as I noted above, theirs is an equal partnership, which eventually sees Jamie’s Django assert himself and take over the driver’s seat (even as a slave amongst white slave owners and slave drivers). And he does so with very few words, but lots of action, compared to his loquacious partner, Dr. King Schulz. Speaking of Spaghetti Western influences here, you could say that Jamie Foxx’s Django is Tarantino’s “Man With No Name,” as Clint Eastwood was to Sergio Leone in his “Dollars Trilogy” of films. Not only is the “D” silent, but also Django himself, like Blondie (Eastwood) is also mostly silent; quiet but observant, and quick to act. Although it could also have been a function of the fact that he’s a slave as part of a bounty hunting duo in the antebellum south, and a chatty Negro amongst white people, especially one as “cheeky” as Django, likely won’t be tolerated.

As for the rest of The Good…

– QT does a really good job of what I call “world-building.” Thanks to the work done by his team – especially on production design, set design, cinematography, and of course the acting, and all the other pieces of this pie – I was usually (though not always) immersed in the world he creates. Occasionally, I was taken out of it (more on that in “The Bad” section), but I’d say that for the majority of its running time, I was in that world. Sometimes the pieces worked together very seamlessly, because you’re engaged, and having a good ol’ time. There are a few really memorable moments that could be enough to hold a movie together, even if much of the rest of it is kind of humdrum; for example, a constantly stern Jamie Foxx’s exchanges with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and his men, are often especially witty and sharp. And I have to tip my hat to DiCaprio’s performance as Candie. Wunderbar, as Waltz would probably say! One of the film’s strongest and most memorable, grounded-in-reality moments, is during a dining room scene after DiCaprio’s Candie learns he’s being duped by his 2 guests. He goes from cool and calm, as he recounts a somewhat creepy tale, and there’s a wonderful sudden devilish turn in his demeanor that erupts into a violent outburst, taking his two guests (who are used to being one step ahead of their opponents) by complete surprise. It’s a really good scene, and one that I think might help secure an Oscar nomination for DiCaprio (whether he can win is another thing, but I think he’ll be in the conversation, if he isn’t already). Even though he wasn’t at all what I imagined for the character when I read the script (I believe I imagined he’d be much older – at least, older-looking – heavier, and even slimier), his portrayal of a southern, ostentatious, we could even say metrosexual (at least, what that word may have meant during that time period) plantation owner in the antebellum south, is, at times, deliciously evil; but just not enough. I could tell he was having a lot of fun with it. Of course it helps that he’s a good actor.

– And finally, in one of Hollywood studio big-budget cinema’s rare moments, a black man gets to be THE hero in the end, saves the day, shooting and killing a lot of white men in the process, and rides into, not quite the sunset, but the moonlight in this case (given how the film ends), with his woman, rescued and proud of her man, riding at his side. To some that might seem like a sexist vision; but to others, a rare, black, masculine cinematic moment to relish unapologetically. As I said earlier, Django is very much his own man – a man on a mission, determined, focused and unwavering in his ultimate goal. He’s not emasculated, aside from being initially set free by Waltz’s Schulz, at the very beginning of the film. But there’s no proverbial white saviour here.

AND NOW THE BAD

– As I said earlier, the pre-release marketing for the film is deceiving – specifically quotes (some we’ve shared) from the key cast and crew, which really don’t jive with the brisk, amusing trailers we’ve seen. It’s not quite the brutally realistic, heart-wrenching human drama of survival, love and death that it’s purported to be by some; it’s more of a mish-mash send-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation cinema, with quite a lot more comedy than you might expect for a slave narrative, with the main goal being to entertain than to inform or incite. I get that it’s a nod to Spaghetti Westerns of years past, but if you’ve seen any of those films, this might just seem like a well-made spoof or knock-off of those original classics. I dare you to watch the first silent 15 minutes (or the final 2-man showdown between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson) of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West; or the last 15 minutes of The Good The Bad And The Ugly, and not appreciate the quiet tension in each. Except for DiCaprio’s moment as I described above, Django Unchained feels mostly breezy, and predictable. And those past films had much more of an epic sweep to them, than Django does. And I think that’s in part due to the fact that, again, Tarantino plays up the comedy more than some of the film’s predecessors (the two I mentioned for example), which felt weightier and grittier to me; the harsh, weathered variety of faces in closeups, staring each other down, all looking like they belonged exactly in the worlds where the films are set. I’m thinking of, again, names already mentioned, like Bronson, Fonda, and also Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, and even the ebullient, yet very sly and dangerous Eli Wallach as Tuco. I believed them all. In Django, I found it hard to take most of its characters very seriously. In fact, aside from Jamie Foxx’s Django, who I’d say is really the only character that felt grounded in reality, much of the rest of the starring cast played more like caricatures – exaggerations of the people they would be in real life; Far more comical than menacing as evil slave owners and slave drivers during the time that the film takes place. Even Christoph Waltz’s Schulz – quick and deadly on the draw, but still played mostly for laughs. And for all his strengths as an actor (in this film as well) DiCaprio suffers from what I’d call “babyface syndrome” which, at times, gets in the way of really seeing him as this supposedly evil, frightening slave master of a villain. There’s a scene with early KKK members, in which they’ve gathered to plot and carry out a scheme that’s so comical and ridiculous that, in a way, trivializes the unimaginable cruelty that blacks faced at the hands of the real-life KKK for many decades to come. And so herein lies a problem – if you don’t really fear your villains, and what they might be capable of, because you’re instead laughing at how comically they are parodied, that kind of ruins the revenge experience doesn’t it? When our forever-stern black hero finally gets his opportunity to act heroically, it just doesn’t resonate as much. It’s not as satisfying as it should have been. As exceptional as our black hero is (even as a slave – “he’s a born natural” I believe is the line Waltz delivers, when Django makes his first kill), his opponents aren’t quite as exceptional. In fact, right from the very start, they are all more like buffoons, incompetent, and, to be frank, no match for our hero (aside from the fact that there’s an existing system that prevents out hero from acting on his desires) which some could argue is actually a disservice to our hero. He’s robbed of a certain kind of masculine *dignity* in that regard.

– As I noted in “The Good,” there isn’t as much slave violence depicted as you might expect. Hints of it, and flashes here and there (like a Mandingo fight – although in the film Mandingo, Ken Norton’s very first real fight as Mede, was quite brutal – maybe even more-so), but nothing that’ll shock you – especially if you’ve read a few books on slavery, or watched some past films and documentaries on the subject; or even if you’ve just heard about it in passing, I think most of us have some idea of not just the mental, but also the physical cruelty black people suffered as slaves. In short, some really horrible shit happened; just think of some of the unimaginable, inhumane things human beings have done, and continue to do to animals; because that’s essentially what slaves were – not entirely human to those who enslaved them at the time, and were treated as such. Very, very little of that is actually in the film! And it made me wonder if that was an intentional decision by QT. Maybe feeling like he could be criticized for being seemingly exploitative, he chose restraint instead; although some might argue that he was too restrained. The most visually violent sequences happen towards the film’s end, as I noted above, in a series of gun fights – a shootout that shows lots of exploding body parts, hit by bullets, with blood gushing and splattering in volumes, and bodies falling all over the place. The problem here is that the violence, played out often in very slow motion (I suppose to emphasize each bullet hit, gushing blood, as limbs are torn into with bullets, like slabs of meat on a butcher’s table), is a tad cartoonish that, again, it’s hard to take it seriously. Yes, some might cringe at the blood splatter, but I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at what felt like an excess of it, instead of being horrified by it. Or maybe I’m just so numb to violence on screen that I wasn’t affected by any of it. But, if you’ve seen any R-rated (especially those hard-R-rated) horror movies like those in the Hostel or Saw franchise, there’s absolutely nothing here that’s at all shocking or that will make you cringe – especially with regards to violence endured by slaves in the film, which, as I already noted, is limited to really a few scenes. If we’re talking about contemporary revenge cinema, or films in which a man is driven to act heroically, or vigilante-style, inspired by his love for a woman, I was far more taken by the sheer force of Kim Ji-woon’s unrelentingly violent, and stunningly accomplished thriller, I Saw The Devil, than I was by Django. And as I noted, it’s really interesting to me (and maybe it’s just me) that Tarantino seemed to be very, very cautious depicting any violence as experienced by slaves specifically. There’s much more violence against the white slave owners and slave drivers, and others in that chain of command, than there is in the opposite direction. And I just wonder if that was an intentional or even a subconscious choice by QT. Whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on your POV. As I said in “The Good” section, there are two ways of looking at that aspect. Those who are hoping to see the *realities* and hardships of slavery, warts and all, will be disappointed; those who’d rather not, won’t be.

– And speaking of emotionally brutal… another problem I experienced while watching the film is that it’s missing an emotional connect to match the violence. Usually, in a revenge tale like this, the violence (at least on the part of the hero) is driven by emotion. He’s been scarred by the villain in some way, and his desire to avenge or seek revenge, comes from an emotional place. But I just didn’t feel a union between the emotion and the violence, if that makes any sense. There’s a disconnect, and so the violence, his revenge, his moment to shine, just didn’t have the kind of punch that I think was necessary to be satisfying. I was more moved after watching the final 2-man showdown between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in the aforementioned Once Upon A Time In The West – sans dialogue, straight cuts, and a flashback that literally brings into focus, the driving motivation for Bronson’s Harmonica man’s journey of quiet yet deadly effective vengeance; and with mission accomplished, he bids the lovely Claudia Cardinale fairwell, as she wishes for his return, all in tight closeups, long stares, as Ennio Morricone’s wonderful composition plays. It packed more of a emotional whallop for me than Jamie’s own moment(s) to have his vengeance and save his gal. It felt like there are scenes missing – scenes that would’ve given this the emotional punch it lacks. Especially given that its also being billed as a “love story.” Other than Django’s desire to find her, there really isn’t a single scene between the two of them, as a couple, that really demonstrates that love. There are a few flashback sequences (distant mostly), that fill in some backstory (events that happened before the film begins), as well as fantasy sequences in which Django *sees* Broomhilda (but again, also distant), and there’s really only 1 scene in which there’s any real loving, physical contact between the two of them – contact that’s relegated to just a kiss, which actually looked and felt kind of awkward to me. Jamie didn’t look very comfortable in that scene which is actually not very long. It could be in part because he’s not what you’d consider a traditional Hollywood leading man (I don’t define what that is, by the way). But other than that, and, as I said, Django’s desire to find her, I just didn’t feel like we are given much to really connect with emotionally. When Django eventually finds her, and they see each other for the first time, in a long time (they were separated and sold to different masters), what does Broomhilda do at the first sight of Django? She faints, in a kind of comical way. And then the audience laughs. We don’t see anything else, because the film then cuts to a sequence at Calvin Candie’s dinner table. I think inserting a genuine moment of passion between them (and, to be clear, I don’t even necessarily mean sex); even just a scene showing them embrace passionately, as if nobody’s watching, in tears, relieved, and so happy to see each other again after so long, and not even knowing if the other was still alive. They finally see each other for the first time in ages, and you’d expect a scene of some kind of release and relief between the two of them. But all we get is him walking into the room, her fainting, dropping a glass of water in the process as she falls to the ground, Waltz’s character delivering a comical line, the audience laughs, and that’s it.

– It take so long to get to the predictable finale, that by the time it happens, I almost didn’t care as much anymore, which also took away some of the punch it should have come with. It clocks in at about 2 hours and 35 minutes, which we could say is inline with sphagetti western classics like the those I mentioned above – each clocking in at about the same length of time, and even longer. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily long because it’s an homage to those films, or if QT’s films are usually long anyway, so this is just par for the course. Hovewer, unlike the classics, Django is (like most Tarantino films) dialogue-heavy; so scenes that may have been otherwise been quick and quickly forgotten, or that allow you to simply take in the imagery sans conversation, are instead short films themselves. Almost every scene is like its own event. But, again, that’s QTs style, so you’re either with it, or you’re not. It was a mixed-bag for me. I was with it sometimes, and others not-so-much – and it’s in those moments that I found myself looking at my watch, checking to see how much time had passed, or how much time was left, given that I knew what the film’s running time was. And that’s usually not a good thing, when you’re checking your watch.

– As I noted in “The Good” section, as far the representation of women – specifically black slave women, and even more specifically, Kerry Washington’s character as the film’s lead female character – it’s not Mandinga, which I think is maybe an approximation of what some were expecting, based on my script review last year. And if you haven’t seen Mandinga, just know that the fact that the two films bare no resemblance in terms of their depictions of black slave women, is a very good thing. And despite the blaxploitation influences, there’s also no Foxy Brown, or Coffy either; no Cleopatra Jones, Not even a Christie Love. Essentially, the portrayal of black women in the film aren’t exploitative, nor are they exotified. However, the problem here is that the role Washington plays is not much of anything at all, and I left the theater wondering why Kerry Washington took the role in the first place, and why she’s spent many Django press conferences talking up her involvement in the film, raising expectations for what audiences should expect from her in it. I wonder if she’s seen the film yet (as of this past weekend anyway – I believe the NY premiere was last night); I say that because, maybe there was a lot more footage of her shot – footage of her actually doing more than just smiling (in fantasy sequences), or crying, or looking distressed, or screaming for Django – and all that extra footage ended up on the cutting room floor; because she’s absolutely wasted here. This is a role that should have gone to an up-and-coming actress looking to break in, and raise industry awareness for herself; not for a seasoned actress like Kerry Washington. And when you consider just how well her hit ABC series is faring right now, her role in Django is quite a step or two down. Granted, when they were shooting the film, Scandal was in its first season, and it wasn’t even clear whether ABC would renew it for a second season; but even a year ago, Kerry Washington’s name carried a certain reverence, respect and expectation; not that this is an irreverent, or disrespectful role, but it’s most certainly not one that you’d expect an actress of her caliber to take; unless the salary offer was one she just couldn’t refuse, or she really wanted to appear in a QT movie, and would’ve taken any role. But really, Broomhilda is a peripheral role. I’m guessing that her attachment may have influenced changes to the character, compared to what we initially read in the script last year, since, as I noted already, those concerns were addressed and absent from the film. But she didn’t need to do this. She does have a few lines, but, for the most part, her job was really just to look pretty, cry or look horrified, and smile when asked to. That’s pretty much it.

– I didn’t care for Samuel L. Jackson in this; and not because he’s the proverbial Uncle Tom (maybe the uncle tom of all uncle toms). I just didn’t care for his performance; I didn’t buy it. There’s some make-up or prosthetic, or something on his face, I guess used to age him; but his look was distracting to me; kind of disturbing actually. More like he should’ve been on a horror film set. Although maybe that was intentional on QT’s part. But his performance also was a little too put-on, I’d say, and didn’t feel genuine to me. I can’t quite put my finger completely on it. At times I felt like, at any moment, he’d break into laughter, breaking character. It felt like, in each of his scenes, he was in an In Living Color skit. But I didn’t care for him. I kept wanting him to maybe  be more restrained; quiet, snake-like in a way – slow, silent, slippery but potentially deadly. He wasn’t any of those things. And I couldn’t take him seriously at all. As an aside, I noticed that his character faced what I thought was a far more gruesome fate than his master, which begs the questions: who’s worse – the slave master, or the Uncle Tom?

– I hate plot conveniences/contrivances. They just feel like lazy writing to me. It’s hard for me to talk about what I’m referring to in this case, without giving part of the story away, so read at your own risk. I’ll try to be as vague as possible. Suffice it to say that, towards the end, it appears that our hero just might face an almost certain death (obviously, he’s the hero, and this is a Hollywood studio film, so I don’t think we’re expecting that he’ll die in the end – although, wouldn’t that be a nice switch for a change; if it were Nat Turner’s narrative, he most certainly would die at the end, but the revenge he takes on his oppressors that would lead to his death, would probably be much sweeter); and just as he’s about to be dealt what would be a fatal blow, there’s an interruption that immediately halts the action, and saves him; it turns out that our antagonists instead have what they feel is an even better idea for his demise – an idea that, as you can guess, is far more elaborate than simply pulling a trigger or slicing his throat, which would instantly kill him. The end. But no… they have to get creative with plotting our hero, Django’s end. And of course, it backfires on them, and you can fill in the blanks after that. You’d think that, by now, movie villains would’ve learned that, when you have your nemesis (the film’s hero) in your grasp, don’t let him/her go. End it then! Don’t dance, giving him/her the opportunity to escape from your grasp (unless it’s a game you love to play); just pull the trigger and end it. When that happened in the film, I just scoffed at it, and laughed. Of course THAT thing that we know so well about Hollywood movies, happens! It’s too damn predictable, and like I said, felt lazy, and I was surprised QT actually went with that rather soft, lame choice. Surprise me!

– And finally, I’d say that the fact that it was reported (I think we reported on this site as well) that QT was still editing the film as recently as a few weeks ago, literally going down to the wire with it, shows. Because this felt somewhat unfinished and unpolished to me, unlike past Tarantino films. It’s not as deft in its handling, and overall production, and I wonder if he really needed more time to polish it off. But the December 25th release date was already set, and, as I assume, The Weinstein Company has it pegged as a potential Oscar contended for next year, in certain categories; and instead of pushing its release date back to the first half of 2013 we could say, giving QT more time to work on it, they were stuck with the already set date, and it may have been too late, and potentially problematic to make a date switch. But this just didn’t feel as finished and polished as one would expect from a QT epic.

It’s a comical costume opera; less of a Spaghetti western and more of a spaghetti “southern.” Those who’ve seen the original Django, will recognize nods to that film, like the use of that film’s theme song at the intro, as well as a cameo by the original film’s star Franco Nero; although I should note that the original Django (there were several “knock-offs” that used the name to follow, but none was official) is not a slave revenge narrative, nor is Tarantino’s film a remake of Sergio Corbucci’s film, as some folks wondered over the weekend, when I mentioned this on Facebook and Twitter. Both films actually don’t have a whole lot in common, except for the name, and Django (played by Franco Nero in the first film) is also on a revenge mission, driven by the love of a woman. He’s a drifter who drags around a coffin that hides a super-duper machine gun inside of it. It’s strongly recommended viewing, if you haven’t seen the original yet.

Will you be entertained? I’m sure a lot of you will. It was a mixed bag for me; some great moments scattered about amongst lots of humdrum, considering the subject matter.

I give it a passing grade, but definitely not high marks. It’s not quite the realistic, heartwrenching, exceedingly brutal human drama of survival, love and death that it’s purported to be by some; but it’s also not quite successful as this mish-mash send-up of previous popular genres, in my humble opinion.

I didn’t find it controversial; it’s as controversial as any previous QT film was considered controversial. Maybe it’s just me. But if you’ve seen enough movies – especially from other countries, outside the USA, where cinema can be far more risque, boundary-pushing, and challenging in a myriad of ways, Django Unchained is relatively tame – especially when you consider that it’s a movie about American slavery… Now, let me say that again Not to imply that gun violence isn’t violence, but it’s a movie about slavery, and its unimaginable horrors; and the most violent scenes in it involve… shoot-outs… with guns. I certainly wasn’t there, but I think I can say that there were probably a few slaves back then who would’ve gladly taken a bullet to the head and a quick death, over some of the more uimaginable forms of cruelty that countless slaves endured and suffered. 

And above all else – if there’s one thing that you should take away from all this, despite the backdrop on which this story unfolds – it’s still very much a QT movie. His name and everything his name conjures up in your heads when it’s mentioned, trumps the fact that it’s a slave narrative. He’s an “entertainment” filmmaker – obviously a smart, informed one too. But he’s not out to affect change in the world, or inspire/incite action against, or for a specific cause, or force you to re-examine the path you’ve chosen to take in your life. He wants you to walk out of the theater after sitting through 2 1/2 hours of his movies, saying, “fuck yes, that was an awesome fucking kick-ass movie, alright!

So if you already like his cooking, you’ll be satiated; and if you don’t already like his cooking, or even the smell of it, then you’ll likely walk out of the theater hungry for something else, or something more.

I appreciated the attempt to tell this particular story – one that hasn’t quite been told in this manner, and definitely not on this scale. But, having now seen Django Unchained, I’m really now even more curious to see what Steve McQueen does with what I think will be a far more realistic, emotionally and even physically brutal, devastating, warts and all film about the institution of slavery, in Twelve Years A Slave – based on what we know of both films thus far.

If you missed Sergio’s thoughts on the film, posted earlier today, you can read them HERE.

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Comments

Serene

I agree with what was said in other comments, that the scenes of slaves forced to fight each other and being ripped apart by dogs were horrifyingly unrestrained. I saw this film in the theater and was extremely uncomfortable during these drawn out scenes. I think that choice was intentional. One of the few times a QT movie is intentionally uncomfortable during violence rather than making violence seem badass. I am usually not in favor of excessive violence, but for this choice I give QT kudos.

Nadia

I finally saw it last night and I think this part of your review sums the whole thing up: "And above all else – if there's one thing that you should take away from all this, despite the backdrop on which this story unfolds – it's still very much a QT movie. His name and everything his name conjures up in your heads when it's mentioned, trumps the fact that it's a slave narrative. He's an "entertainment" filmmaker – obviously a smart, informed one too. But he's not out to affect change in the world, or inspire/incite action against, or for a specific cause, or force you to re-examine the path you've chosen to take in your life. He wants you to walk out of the theater after sitting through 2 1/2 hours of his movies, saying, "fuck yes, that was an awesome fucking kick-ass movie, alright!"" That pretty much sums it up. People can't get worked up about this movie because it's not that kinda movie. You've got to be dense if you're going to see this thinking it's going to be something all heavy and serious about slavery, especially since it's directed by Tarantino. If you've seen his past films, you should know what you're in for. Either you roll with it or you don't. But don't get all pissed off if you're seeing it expecting one kind of movie but get something totally different.

akroc

So a scene in which a slave gets ripped apart by dogs. And a scene when one slave is forced to bash another one in the head with a hammer after pushing his eyes in is restrained?

Stan

Restrained depiction of violence against slaves? Showing a slave getting ripped apart alive by attack dogs is restrained? I usually love Tarantino's films, but scenes like that seem out of place in his usual world of comic violence. They belong in more serious and reverent depictions of slavery's horrors. I am not offended by this film, I was just left feeling uncomfortable. The best analogy I can think of is Inglourious Basterds with some gas chamber scenes thrown in there. Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful review, and I am finding everyone's opinions very interesting. At least this film is sparking a lot of debate.

bashe

I can't—for the life of me—figure out why anyone would complain about the length of a review, any review. There's no such thing as required reading on-line, is there? Anyway, I really appreciated this in-depth response to the film. I agreed with some of your points/stances, some I didn't (I thought Sam Jackson was mesmerizing, and brought his character to life in a layered, multi-faceted, deeply disturbing performance—I completely agreed with what Wesley Morris said about Jackson's performance in the Boston Globe), but I deeply appreciate your stretching out on this film the way you did. Thank you.

DLG

Thanks – this is the most objective take/review that I have read including the one by Skip Gates. Not being a big Tarantino fan I won't be seeing the flick until it comes out on DVD and I can get from the library. From what I can gather DU is pretty much a pulp movie like Tarzan (Django) and Jane (Brunhilde)

Alex

"..but it's also not quite successful as this mish-mash send-up of previous popular genres, in my humble opinion"

Humble? I just read 4 pages of anything but!
This essay was definitely worth a read – you referenced far too many other films you wanted it to be like and it's plain to see you had no intention of ever liking this film from the beginning – thats cool – maybe, like me sometimes, you play the devils advocate or just do not like to go with grain. That is a wonderful stance to have. However all your essay made me want to do was see the movie. It's like everyone, including yourself, expected more than what we know Tarantino can offer. Revenge flicks that turn the conventional on its head : What if a white, blonde bride took on 88 crazy yakuza's ; what if a bunch of girls take on a psychotic stunt man?; A Jewish woman, duping a Nazi coupe in a french cinema with a black guy as her lover?; hey what if a black slave just decided to go on the war path and get his wife back?… but its set in the wild west.
Old concepts using misplaced vehicles as the hook. Don't believe the hype? it's tarantino, there is always hype. Just most people (black people) were getting ahead of themselves because of the subject matter. Understandable – it's a subject matter, like the Holocaust that when broached can breach a lines of disrespect and ignorance. However it's a Tarantino flick – nothing more or less. I know exactly what I'm going to be getting; humour, cynicism and a whole lot of air kisses to films of old because that man loves to pay homage to his influences.

THE FIRST

I wished you would've condensed this into a 1500- word essay.

fish

great review. One of the best movie criticisms I have seen in a while.

Blackman

Brevity DUDE! This is a blog. We are NOT your professors. Learn to keep Shi! simple, direct and PLAIN. I got better shi! to read than a 4 page right up on a movie. Besides, who does this? Roger & Ebert never did.

turner

More like a thesis than a review… TMI

yemi toure

Quentin Tarantino has the word "nigger" in "Django Unchained" 110 times. What??? What is his underlying point for using it *that many* times? And if you say, "That's just how it was, back then," how many times will we hear "cracker"?

ska-triumph

While I look forward to reading this review, Sergio's take, and all of the insightful, passionate comments, after having seen the film at an AMPAS screening last week, I can at least pass my two cents. It's all Tarantino in tone and taste. Darkly comic, openly explotative, cartoonish violent, testosterone-driven, sociopolitial simple. That being said it's a good slavery-revenge/spaghetti-western mashup flick; a beautifully shot mess in every way but performance; the committed cast chewed up every minute. More insights to come I'm sure… Vigilance.

cruz77

thanks for a real review. way too many are just, "i love this, so enjoyable" without actually explaining why

Lox

So no award nomination for any black character in this film. We are reduced to playing extra in our own story again!! No plan to see it thank you very much.

SameOl'

This is the same ol' bs served up to try to get Black folks' money. Leave it alone. Golden Globes nominated the movie and qt and all da gud yt folk, but nobody else. Don't fall for it. Tell 'em where they can stick this sh*t!

CANDI

GOLDEN GLOBE NOMS FOR DJANGO
LEO
CHRISTOPHER
QUENTIN

Africameleon

Ya'll are a mess…. I gotta job. I can't read all this!!!

Monique A. Williams

Great, balanced review. I know QT wasn't trying to make another Goodbye Uncle atom, and I'm interested in seeing how he spun this. More intrigued by the day! Thanks for the lengthy, indepth review, Tambay!

JMac

As always thanks for the thorough review. I had no plans to see it and still don't but I like reading balanced reviews on hot button movies. Especially glad that this doesn't have some Mandinga/sex slave exploitation sh%t in it. I accidently came across that movie without knowing what it was, watched 10 minutes then shut it off before it scarred me for life. Considering this film seems weaker on the violence (which would be the only reason many people would want to watch such a film), I have a silent wish that perhaps QT will be "persuaded" to find a better use of his time than churning out more slave movies.

Agent K

After hearing Calvinis killed by Schultz, what can be worse for Sam's character? Were his hands chopped off?

jacetooon

Man way to spoil Django 1966.

Orville

Nice review Tambay, I am disappointed that Kerry Washington's character Broomhilda wasn't a major role in this film. But I disagree with Tambay about Kerry Washington taking the part now. Besides Scandal virtually ALL of Kerry Washington's films she's been in a supporting role.

It is interesting, that only on television Kerry's gotten the opportunity to be the female lead role.
Interesting also, you say Tambay that you think it is a step down for Kerry but I think Kerry is actually smart for taking this role. Let's face it, Hollywood is about publicity and Kerry Washington knows being in a Tarantino film is going to get her name in the papers. Although, I will say I agree with Tambay that Scandal is truly Kerry's breakthrough role and not Django Unchained. I am hoping that Hollywood takes notice of Kerry and finally gives her a lead in a Hollywood film I would love to see her in a romantic drama where she is the female lead and the main star of the film.

Michael

Really smart, thoughtful review. I agree with the bulk of your assessment, although I think I enjoyed Christoph Waltz a bit more than you did. He was masterful in setting the tone of the film early on, and has a unique way of individualizing QT's dialogue, when he often seems to write the bulk of his characters with the same voice. I thought Jamie was quite solid, and I was very apprehensive about his ability to pull off the roll. At 165 minutes, it felt about 20-25 minutes too long, but ultimately I enjoyed it much more than Inglorious Basterds.

Justin W

After reading this, it seems most of fears about the film have been erased. Thanks for the good read Tambay.

Skud Wilkins

''This is a role that should have gone to an up-and-coming actress looking to break in, and raise industry awareness for herself; not for a seasoned actress like Kerry Washington.'' Heh. Very interesting review, except for this bit. Next time Tarantino should hire you to do the casting.

Donella

Well, you've thought long and hard on this, Tambay.

Curtis

This movie is gettin rave reviews. Looks like it is living up to the hype. It's rotten tomatoes score is 100% with 19 reviews so far. I will be there opening day. So happy for the cast.

Les Grossman

i skipped "The Bad" section.k,thanx,bye!!

Tamara

Ah, thanks for your thoughts on the film. With what you posit, it's as if QT brought marshmallows to a clambake. I love your mentions and comparisons/contrasts of the original Django as well as Mandingo and Mandinga (which I did not know existed), Ingloriuos Basterds, as well as the overall blaxploitation flavor attributed to QT's filmmaking aesthetic. What you mention of Leo DiCaprio and his babyface as you put it. I have to say that it took me some years to see through his baby face to the man he is in the character he embodies. Don't worry, you'll get there, too. LOL. I'm on the fence with Broomhilda von Shaft, the name as well as the character/ization, but I look forward to drawing conclusions of my own. Likewise, the overall regarding the depiction of a slavery piece too soft, not soft enough, too hard, too violent, graphic, real, dramatized, romanticized, etc. again thank you for not spoiling but giving enough to continue to pique my interest in this work. I'm a fair-weather QT fan, as well as a fair-weather spaghetti western blaxploitation pulp fan, but Django has been all thanks to S&A on my must-see list since its public announcement upon QTs inception of the work. As I said in Sergio's post, I look forward to QTs other slavery-era ideas for pictures. I'm interested, indeed and that is a good first step up from fair-weather, no? Take care.

B

DVD for me… Thanks for a balanced review.

Taz

"As an aside, I noticed that his character faced what I thought was a far more gruesome fate than his master, which begs the questions: who's worse – the slave master, or the Uncle Tom?"

From my point of view of reading comments on this blog and others, the black man is worse because we do not give them any grace, mercy, slack, or a teeny piece of tissue to wipe the crap off their behinds.

Otherwise, this was a decent review.

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