Ohh, Django. You might well be the quickest gun in the South, and like everyone else in this film, you got a mouth on you. And your movie’s a mighty fine watch, even if it lacks some of the elements that made Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds an instant classic.
Even if the story’s a bit lacking…
Django Unchained is an unapologetically simple tale of Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave seeking to rescue his wife from that trade by way of exacting vengeance on their oppressors. The journey he sets out on tends to feel random nearly as often as it leads toward a point, but regardless of whether a given scene advances the plot, it tends to be very enjoyable to watch more often than not.
At the beginning of the film Django is given his freedom by Dr. King Schultz (the wonderful Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter whose peculiar yet remarkable compassion for Django is matched only by his amoral treatment of most everyone else. The travels of this unlikely duo through southern pre-Civil War America aren’t so much marked by twist and turns or by in-depth characterization of the villains or the “heroes,” such as they are–and yet what little plot happens to be there is usually executed quite well.
Schultz, upon taking Django into his “custody,” sees him not only as a freedman but as a human being altogether, and aside from his nonchalant treatment of others, possibly due to his career, he’s easily one of the most likeable characters in the film. While accompanying Schultz as a bounty hunter, Django then trains in shooting rifles and small arms, and he’s ridiculously good at it. As with many other story scenes in this movie, however, the bounty hunting is a means to an end, that of getting Schultz and Django closer to their united goal. And that’s really the whole point of those sections.
Therein lies one of this movie’s biggest issues: some scenes, such as an early one involving a sheriff who isn’t what he seems to be, don’t really play a part in a larger plot, and they don’t feel hugely significant in themselves. They are fun to watch, as the action scenes in this movie are produced incredibly well, but they don’t always have significant meaning or lasting value. Sometimes the individuals with prices on their heads are specially relevant for Django, and sometimes they’re not. This also applies to other scenes where even the fights themselves start to seem unnecessary, no matter how visually appealing they are–and they really are–so the whole thing feels set up for the sake of exploitation and cheap thrills.
The story excels the most in showing the ways the characters behave, from Django’s endless glares of anger and frustration that speak volumes in themselves, to Dr. Schultz’s distinctive but unexaggerated mannerisms, to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Inception-esque emotional outbursts as a plantation owner. Even when these people sometimes feel one-dimensional (Schultz excepted) with regard to their intents and worldviews, they do not lack for personality. The story is a lengthy yet decently paced sequence of events that serves primarily as an excuse for Django to do awesome things, which generally involve shooting people in ways that make Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli look restrained.
Most everything surrounding that story is excellent.
Tarantino’s latest performs wonderfully in the areas of art and sound, with gorgeous architectural and environmental shots that remain a delight to witness throughout the film. (A mild exception can be made for one scene of a traditional Western town whose buildings, real or fake, didn’t always look that convincing from the outside.) The colonial architecture of a large Mississippi home is the highlight, as are the extravagant feasts partaken by its inhabitants. The costumes look great, and Django looks especially well-dressed as he gets to ride around in outfits that look even fancier than those of some whites’ in the film. The film is a visual marvel, even if the DVD version looks extremely letterboxed even on my widescreen high-definition television.
It’s impossible to talk about the visuals without talking about the fights. They are numerous, and they are gory. If this doesn’t turn you off, you may well enjoy highly stylized bloodbaths that suit Django’s new skills effortlessly. (To wit, he comes up with some rather creative bullet shields.) Django’s own motivations become rather disturbing here, however, as his hunting of bounties becomes about “killing white folks and getting paid for it,” thus spreading his desire for vengeance across a very wide fan of potential targets.
To what passes for the movie’s credit, it instead decides to focus mostly on dispatching thugs and slave owners, but there are two fights that feel especially pointless for their own reasons: The first occurs roughly around the middle of the film and deals with a horrific blood sport–Django doesn’t participate–complete with a split-second glimpse of a man’s face after he’s been blinded. (Other quick yet sights include a man who happens to be naked and another man who’s been attacked by dogs.) In my opinion the scene is too unpleasant and too long to really enjoy in the absurdist way I enjoyed watching the other action scenes (compare the way I enjoyed most of Act of Valor), and while its context is a necessary part of the story, the fight itself does nothing to advance it.
The other questionable scene comes at the end of the film and glamorizes the cutting down of a group of men without seeming to establish why they deserved it. It feels random and more than a little counterproductive. A scene following it does manage to be the climactic and enjoyably excessive moment that really belongs in this film, but that one moment in the story makes that section’s instigator feel like a needless jerk.
Many of these moments, good and bad, are set to a consistently wonderful musical score that includes classic artists such as Jim Croce and Ennio Morricone (even Johnny Cash gets a play at one point), and that score makes the film’s action scenes hilarious and its slower parts almost soothing. Even the occasional rap songs feel appropriate if goofy.
The dialogue is done well from start to finish, but it is incredibly profane, with far more uses of the Lord’s name in vain and other vulgar terms than I cared to count. You will also want to be well at ease with hearing “the dreaded n-word” over and over, because whether that bothers you or not, or even if you’re simply not used to hearing it very often, you’re going to be listening to it constantly through large portions of the film, spoken by characters of all social classes, genders, and races. Listening to two black people call each other this over and over just feels weird.
While not perfect, the film is still enjoyable.
Django Unchained doesn’t break new ground with its narrative and doesn’t always make itself as clear as it could, but this is a movie that doesn’t seem to be the least bit concerned with justifying itself. It’s about fun, regardless of consequences, and for the most part, the film succeeds in making good use of its nearly three-hour running time. It’s at once easy and difficult to watch, thanks to the excellent action sequences mixed with all manner of elements that will alienate some viewers, with particular notice of the movie’s amounts and kinds of profanity. (Someone close to a friend of mine was also offended by a glimpse of nudity, but there’s very little actual sexuality in the film. A woman is seen naked roughly from the side, but the context of this is likely meant to disturb, not arouse.)
The most hilarious moment in the film for me is easily when a thoroughly incompetent group known as the Regulators (they’re not the actual Ku Klux Klan, as that group didn’t exist yet in real life, but similarities in outfits and racial worldview are easy to see; also, this link contains mild if fairly predictable spoilers) tries to cause trouble and utterly fails because the members can’t see out of their hoods. It’s possibly the one moment in the whole film where randomness actually plays to the movie’s benefit, and it is exactly the kind of goofy humor that the movie could have used more of.
In my opinion this movie trades Inglourious Basterds’ insightful if sometimes irrelevant dialogue for slightly better pacing, but the real issue is that that film took an otherwise standard revenge premise and asked questions through visual presentation of whether historically victimized groups were capable of committing deeply questionable acts against their oppressors. Django, on the other hand, feels more like a straightforward exploitation film than a deconstruction of the same, and while it has plenty of guilty pleasures, those are essentially all it does have. It’s not the kind of film I can see myself watching over and over again, as I’ve done with Tarantino’s vision of World War II, but if you as the viewer are willing to navigate the film’s laundry list of content issues, I would definitely recommend at least a watch of Django Unchained.