Friday, December 28, 2012

Brief thoughts on Django Unchained

Warning: Spoilers abound throughout

Quentin Tarantino is always up to more than mere aping. Yes, he’s a filmmaker that speaks to the film geek inside all of us (how many of us check off the references in our head while we watch his films?), but his best films have always been about more than the thing he’s referencing. Jackie Brown (more than a love letter to the Blaxpoitation film), Kill Bill  (has depths that reach beyond simple homage to his favorite of subgenres, the kung-fu movie), and Inglourious Basterds (as perfect a film Tarantino has made, only Jackie Brown comes close, is so much more than being just some homage to B-level WWII movies) are his best examples of this; they're also his best films because they are so much more than what they seem to be on the surface. I always appreciate that about Tarantino. Even though Django Unchained isn't anywhere close to being in the same category of his three best films, I found myself liking a lot of what Tarantino was up to with his homage to Blaxpoitation and Spaghetti westerns. I want to see Django Unchained a second time before I approach the film with a more conventional review. So for now, in fear that if I don’t get something written down now I never will, here are a few, jumbled (and probably repetitive) observations about Tarantino's latest:

  • Let’s get the geeky stuff out of the way first: I loved the use of the original song from Corbucci’s Django and the way the bold red credits that the song plays over are starkly stamped over the dusty setting of Texas. I loved the snap zooms (a favorite of the Italian genre filmmakers) during that credit sequence and when introducing Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). I loved the obvious references to the snowy atmosphere of The Great Silence and the muddy towns of Django. There were the obvious references in how Django Unchained parodies slavery the way Mandingo  (Tarantino’s attempts at making big-budget, studio produced exploitation films lines-up in a way with  Mandingo, a rare big budget exploitation movie film the ‘70s) and DrumMandingo’s sort-of sequel – do.  Although the latter film is more akin to the tone Tarantino is striving for here. There are other Blaxpoitation movies (a threatening scene of castration – a favorite trope found in the films that played on 42nd Street – reminded me of several ‘70s exploitation movies) and Blaxpoitation westerns referenced throughout (like Boss Nigger whose alternate title, The Black Bounty Killer, obviously links it to Tarantino’s film) as well as hybrid Blaxpoitation/Spaghetti westerns like Antonio Margheriti’s Take a Hard Ride, which stars Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Lee Van Cleef. As I usually do, I find myself enjoying all of the references Tarantino throws at his geeky fans. These things are never enough to say that a film is great or even good, but the fanboy in me always appreciates them, so I figured I would just get it out of the way now.
  • Okay, now that the insignificant, geeky stuff is out of the way, I did think that Django Unchained mostly worked. It was a bit too strained in certain moments, especially during an unnecessarily long third act where Django and his bounty hunter partner Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) sit around a table with Candie while his head servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks over his shoulder. This scene seems to be straining to relive the magic of the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds.  Unfortunately, the tragic absence of longtime editor Sally Menke (who tragically died while on a hiking trip with her dog in 2010) can be felt in scenes like the dinner table scene that takes place at “Candieland,” Candie’s lavish plantation in Mississippi. The collaboration with Menke was truly one of the great ones in modern American cinema. The editor and director have a relationship like few in movies, and the way some scenes stumble through to their obvious conclusion on the heels of a sequence that really works kind of corroborate the rumors that Tarantino was in the editing room until the last minute tinkering with the film. A lot of the scenes do indeed play out as if Tarantino had so much going on his head in regards to how he wanted the film to play, that he is simply at sea in how to time it out and properly pace the film because he’s just too in love with everything.
  • Because of these editing problems, it seems like Django Unchained maybe should have been a little bit longer rather than Tarantino trying to cram it all into one film. I know that sounds weird after complaining about the length in the third act and the pacing problems the film sometimes runs into, but I think maybe Tarantino needed to stretch this thing out a la Kill Bill. Both films are vengeance stories; however, I feel like Beatrix Kiddo is a much better protagonist than Django because her story – more mythological in tone – was given time to breathe so that when she has those great conversations with Bill in Volume 2, we feel her emotion when she is laying on that bathroom floor after having been reconciled with her daughter. Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Westerns very famously portrayed pitiless characters. In fact, most of his heroes are anti-heroes that aren’t there to save the day. They’re designed to be stark contrasts to the John Wayne prototype in America; they reflected the social unrest in Italy at the time, and so the protagonists were often anti-heroes or the villains, providing a very cynical view of the west. 
  • So, understanding that, I guess I can see not really caring about Django’s quest for vengeance/reconciliation because that’s normal for the type of Spaghetti Western Tarantino loves so much. But the added element of Django trying to reconcile with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is the very type of thing we are supposed to care about; it humanizes a character type found throughout Spaghetti Westerns that is typically amoral and impossible to empathize with. Unfortunately, a few crude, grainy flashbacks weren’t enough to draw me into Django’s quest to get his wife back (although there are few moments where on his quest he sees visions of his wife pop up in fields or in a hot spring; those brief moments to work well in making sure we know that this is always at the forefront of Django’s mind). When they do reconcile at the end (a lovely shot of their shadows on the wall), I was surprised by how little I cared (the shot of her clapping in that "my hero" way that is played in the style of old Western serials made me laugh, though) So, Tarantino has the dilemma here of being true to the type of protagonist found in the bleak, bloody Spaghetti Westerns he loves so much and giving an emotional journey for Django to embark on that the audience can invest in. He just doesn't mix his tones as well here as he has in the past. 
  • So Django Unchained is more Kill Bill: Volume 1 than Inglourious Basterds (or even Kill Bill: Volume 2) with its emphasis on vengeance and over-the-top violence rather than character development and social commentary about a countries past atrocities. Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxpoitation films were known for the over-the-top violence, so once I saw the copious amounts of blood spraying everywhere, I realized what Tarantino was up to and just kind relented to the fact that this was going to be a step back for the auteur. At this point, I began enjoying the movie for what it was: the first Tarantino film in a long time to be merely homage. Sure I think Tarantino is up to something with Samuel L. Jackson character that kind of disrupts the simple black/white dichotomy of the time. In a way, Stephen’s relationship to Candie (especially in the way he gets his master to the library to open up his eyes about the business deal he is about to transact) is oddly reminiscent of the relationship between Django and Schultz. Jackson’s evil Stephen is the best the actor has been since Ordell Robbie, and in that moment where he sits and drinks in the study across from Candie, he represents the antithesis of what white society views blacks to be just as Django does. But those moments of social commentary are brief. This is more than anything a violent comedy, something akin to the Tarantino of Planet Terror who’s simply just having fun making a big budget exploitation movie.
  • Let’s talk a little about Christoph Waltz as Schultz: just as he stole every scene in Inglourious Basterds, so too does he own every moment of Django Unchained. You just can’t take your eyes off this guy. Whether he’s skimming head off of beer, licking his fingers and smoothing out his mustache, explaining his justification for murdering a town’s sheriff, or getting under the Francophile Candie’s skin by enlightening him on the fact that Alexander Dumas, one of Candie’s favorite writers, was black…he’s just fantastic in every scene. Even when Tarantino would take him out of focus so that our eyes move towards Foxx and focus on the film’s “star,” I still found myself transfixed by Waltz’ presence in the frame; I was always curious to see what he was up to. He has this amazing ability to balance so well the humor and seriousness of a predicament that he may be in. He did the same thing (although with more evil intentions) in Inglourious Basterds with his interrogation/investigation tactics. Obviously he’s not playing a villain here, but Waltz does something similar during the moments where he shoots a sheriff and talks his way out of being killed by the marshal and his deputies, the way he does the exact same spiel on Big Daddy’s (Don Johnson in a wonderfully silly performance) plantation after Django has lost his cool and gone off script by killing two people they were after before Schultz was ready for them to be killed, or the way he realized that Candie and his men have beaten him at his game and he must acquiesce defeat. In each of those scenes he Waltz finds the right balance between humor and seriousness. I especially liked the way he tells Django about the meaning of his wife’s name, Broomhilda, and the German fairytale surrounding it (it reminded me of when Bill plays his flute for Beatrix by firelight in Kill Bill: Volume 2). His German bounty hunter is one of my favorite characters Tarantino has written.
  • Jamie Foxx was fine as Django, bringing the right kind of humor to the role. This is especially seen when he and Schultz first partner up and collect their bounties during the winter. However, I never felt like Foxx was the reason I was hooked on the film. He looks great in slow motion, shooting his way through a crowd, but he’s never as interesting as the characters Tarantino surrounds him with. Leonardo DiCaprio is hilariously over-the-top here as Candie; with his nasally southern drawl, he plays so well the kind of character you so badly want to punch in the face. I especially liked the way DiCaprio played two moments: one where he watched Django’s reaction as a runaway slave is ripped apart by rabid dogs. The second is where he pulls out a skull and proceeds to spew out pseudoscientific bullshit about the differences between the slave skull and the white, or creative, skull. The latter scene makes the moment where Schultz enlightens Candie about Dumas all the more entertaining. The aforementioned Johnson has a lot of fun in his Colonel Sanders outfit, and supporting pros like Walton Goggins, James Remar, Michael Parks and M.C. Gainey pop us to remind us that Tarantino has an affinity for such character actors (they really don’t do much else even though it’s always good to see them). Jonah Hill pops up in a scene that was an obvious tip of the hat to Mel Brooks – the only problem is it comes off as more Robin Hood Men in Tights Mel Brooks than Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks. I didn’t hate as a lot of people I know have, but it also didn’t work (again, an editor would have helped here tremendously). I did, however, really like the Franco Nero cameo. Goofy and hit-you-over-the-head obvious? Yes. But I didn’t care. I still geeked out for it big time. Nero’s response to the line about how to say Django’s name – “The D is silent.” – had me smiling.
  • It took me about an hour to get acclimated to the film, to understand that this was going to be more of the comical, Grindhouse Tarantino (again, I think if you brace yourself more for a Planet Terror/Death Proof type Tarantino film, you’ll be okay here) than the up-to-more-than-what’s-on-the-surface Tarantino of Inglourious Basterds. Nothing in the film kept me on the edge of my seat with an anticipation of how certain scenes would play out the same way Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 2, or Basterds did, but I was still intrigued enough to see where it was going to take me. Having a better idea of what to expect on a second go-round, I suppose I’ll like the film even more upon second viewing.
  • One final observation:  Django Unchained moves in three phases that are similar to the trajectory of the Spaghetti Western itself. It starts simply enough as a Leone-type Spaghetti Western as Django is set free by Schultz in a great opening scene (by the way, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is beautiful in that opening night scene; it’s almost worth the price of admission) and continues in that tradition with its extreme violence and eccentric villains (Big Daddy, for example) until it moves into its darker, second phase. For Spaghetti Westerns, this was the era of the more cynical aforementioned Corbucci westerns. The film then moves towards its final act mirroring the final phase of the Spaghetti Western: parody. The farcical nature of the film’s coda (complete with Tarantino, in a cameo, blowing himself up with dynamite as well as the final moment with Django’s horse dance) is reminiscent of the Trinity films starring Terrence Hill (The Trinity films were extremely popular but essentially killed the subgenre, marking the final "phase" of the Spaghetti Western even though some like Leone and Fulci tried their hand at it one last time with Duck, You Sucker and Four of the Apocalypse respectively). Now, it's not as simple as these elements only appear in these "phases" of the film (certainly the parody aspect appears throughout),  Whether Tarantino organized his film in these “phases” or not is debatable, but it's intriguing to me and makes me want to go back for a second view to see if this observation is just something I’m pulling out of my ass or whether he’s doing this overtly.


  1. How about them just riding off though Mississippi at the end. They wouldn't have made it 50 miles.

  2. Kevin, you find a lot to appreciate here, and I agree Waltz's performance is the best this film has to offer. You point out some of Waltz's best moments. The camping scene dialogues are especially well done - they are my favorite scenes. Unfortunately, Waltz just wasn't enough to save this film for me - though he does make the film worth watching.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the Menke editing angle - often editors don't get credit enough, but seeing this Menke-less Tarantino film shows she certainly knew what she was doing (perhaps better than he did). I think it was the editing that was definitely off in this one. She will be missed.

  4. Hi, maybe you´ll find this django unchained script interesting. Very good blog BTW I never thought people outside Mexico knew about Hugo Stiglitz!

  5. Her name is Brunhilde or Brunhilda. From Viking Mythology.
    Broomhilda is a comic strip featuring a funny witch with green skin and warts.