Review: Historical Accuracy Meets Bloody Fantasy in ‘Django Unchained’

Django Unchained (2012):

The Plot: Set two years before the Civil War, Django tells the story of the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), who is given his freedom by the charming and quirky bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz and his amazing beard). Together, they kill Bad White Dudes and eventually set off to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the twisted and ridiculous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is most certainly a Bad White Dude. Though they are clever and badass, Django and Dr. Schultz aren’t fully prepared for the cunning of Candie’s old slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is much more dangerous than he seems. Will the two heroes rescue Broomhilda and bring justice to the South? Or will they meet their doom at Calvin’s Candyland? Only time—and a trip to your local cinema—will tell.

If you’ve liked Tarantino’s movies so far, then you will probably like this one. It’s got all the things you’d expect from him: vibrant characters, great performances, a cool soundtrack, long scenes of people talking about things that don’t really forward the plot but are nonetheless entertaining and character-enriching, and tons of bloody violence.

Some of you may be wondering how Django handles the whole slavery thing. I’d say the film handles it very well. Tarantino, unsurprisingly, doesn’t pander or sink into melodrama. The portrayal of slavery in the film is probably historically accurate, and definitely honest. Slavery happened. It was really shitty, and Tarantino doesn’t shy away from that shittiness. Parts of the film are kind of disturbing because of that. Good. Slavery shouldn’t be romanticized. Well, duh.

Slavery, you guys.

Slavery, you guys. Seriously.

One of the things that the film does very well is switch between this frank depiction of some pretty f*cked up shit and the heavily-stylized vengeance served up by a very understated, very cool Jamie Foxx. This switch often happens within a single scene. That may sound like it should be jarring, but Tarantino makes it work. He builds a vivid world here, pulling off something very similar to what he did in Inglourious Basterds. Both films feature a kind of historically-grounded alternate reality, where pulp heroes can dole out harsh justice on people who, in retrospect, were kind of evil.

In a way, I think it’s meant to be cathartic. Not necessarily in a White Liberal Doing Something For the Poor Black People kind of way. It’s more along the lines of Human Beings Like to See Bad Guys Get What’s Coming to Them. The fact that these bad guys come out of our own history is important, but Tarantino isn’t condescending or preaching to anybody. He’s trying to make an entertaining movie that still has something to say. Though I’m pretty sure that he’s the target audience for his own films, I appreciate what he’s doing here.

As always, Tarantino brings together an awesome ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx gives a perfectly understated performance, lending gravity to lines that could easily have come out sounding a little ridiculous. There was a rumor floating around that Will Smith was offered the title role. I’m glad he didn’t take it. Christoph Waltz somehow manages to make Dr. Schultz a convincing blend of dapper, cheery, thoughtful, sensitive, and dangerous. It’s impressive. And he has a fantastic beard.

Damn.

Damn.

DiCaprio’s character is ridiculous and vile, and pretty entertaining. Calvin Candie is basically just a rich, spoiled psychopath. Threatening, to be sure, but someone who can be beaten. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is much more complex, and Jackson’s performance is chilling. Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that the majority Samuel L. Jackson’s best performances have been in Tarantino films. I’d have to check with Colin to be sure, though (our Strange Bacon writer is an expert on more than just Canada).

django sammy j terrifying

Terrifying.

In spite of all that, Django isn’t a perfect movie. The last half hour feels…off. I’ve heard other people say that the middle lags, and I guess it does. But that’s just Tarantino playing to his strengths. The showdown at the end, however, is unnecessarily prolonged and weirdly punctuated, which ultimately makes it much less satisfying than I suspect Tarantino wanted it to be. Still, the good outweighs the bad, and Django Unchained is a worthy addition to the director’s oeuvre.

Like all of Tarantino’s films, Django is worth seeing twice. But it is a Tarantino movie, so I may wait a bit before I give it a re-watch.

One last thing:

However you feel about Quentin Tarantino is a matter of personal opinion. He’s good at what he does. Am I a little tired of hearing about how great Pulp Fiction is? Yes. But I rented it today anyway. Why? Two reasons: 1) I work at a video store, so it’s free. 2) Watching Django made me realize that the last time I watched Pulp Fiction was when I was in high school. And as we all know, most of the opinions you form in high school are dumb.

4 thoughts on “Review: Historical Accuracy Meets Bloody Fantasy in ‘Django Unchained’

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  3. Pingback: The Tuesday Zone: ‘Hitchcock’ | Rooster Illusion

  4. Pingback: Second Breakfast Explores the Dangers of Piracy with ‘Captain Phillips’ | Rooster Illusion

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