Django Unchained

Django Unchained

This might be the film most talked about on this site, and so it would be impossible for me to characterize all of the chatter. However, my limited reading of the talk here on this site suggests that while there are some who make mention of the racial aspects of this, most people gave it short attention comparatively. The aesthetics of it dominate the conversation, or Tarantino, or the meta-narrative about film, or anything but what this film really has to say about race. There are a few good reviews on this matter, some positive, some not, but by and large, most people tend to shy away from the subject matter. And that, I think, is the biggest indictment of this film.

It's not that it lacks complexity entirely. The character of Stephen says a lot more than I at first wanted to give him credit for (one of my roommates kept laughing at his lines, and I kept cringing because his every action just made me angrier at Calvin Candie). As a symbol (and my other roommate stressed that Tarantino's characters are generally nothing more than that), Stephen is possibly the most damning figure in the film, a vicious jab at white supremacy and its poisonous power. Beyond this and--as another site user mentioned, though I don't remember whom--the scene where Dr. Schulz notes his guilt over using Django, though, the film's main focus is just the usual exploitative rendering of slavery as fucking awful. The more complex themes and ideas are there, but the spectacle drowns them out. It shares more in common with Mandingo than the sickening slave-gladiator plot.

So what message gets the most play? The idea that slavery is bad. Well, I can't argue with that, but in a 165 minute epic about righteous vengeance, Tarantino spent vastly more time on spurts of blood and bad jokes than one using his incredible forum (because he is, quite possibly, the director with the loudest voice right now that will reach a worthwhile audience) for a meaningful and, more importantly, effective message. We should not have been able to turn around without seeing someone else talking about how this opened their eyes about an aspect of America's racist heritage that wasn't truly clear, but mostly what we get (on this site, mind you) is people comparing it to his older films, or people discussing that godawful piece of Brooksian comedy as an un/welcome shift in tone, or commentary on performance or just mindless fan-fueled gushing. And that all would be palatable if coupled with a little something more. (Admittedly, I would regret any changes to some masterful discussions of this film all the same--this point is important actually, not just a joke. I like all of your reviews that I read, and I wouldn't make any of you change a note. This is your film diary; write what you want. My complaint is about the big picture and how it reflects upon the film itself, not about what you yes you wrote about it. IF YOU READ NOTHING ELSE, READ THAT LAST SENTENCE.)

Besides this wider look, I wasn't all that taken with the film anyway. I am in the camp that found the lynching hood jokes unfunny (and too long). The gore wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't what I wanted out of gunfights (I'm more a fan of Woo-style action than just an endless barrage of Peckinpah violence). The pacing was great for the first two hours, but the final stretch was just that--stretching it out. There were some decent shots, some nice looking scenery (the snowy mountains, right?), some lovely staging (the opening scene especially, with the slaves in the dark). But mostly, the visual feast was missing a few courses; for every moment of looking down from the mezzanine on a carnage-strewn foyer, we have a dozen extraneous shots of fetishistic details that neither serve the story nor have any real visual appeal (certainly sometimes he was going for tension that I just didn't buy into, to be fair).

The female characters were non-entities, Hildy most of all, reduced to a MacGuffin. That might be the film's most criminal character choice; nothing more than a pretty face. They even went out of their way to reduce the legend of Brunhilda to a damsel-in-distress story, stripping away the details that made her a powerful figure in mythology. Her motivation in defying Odin was literally forgotten by the character relating the story, and instead of being a shieldmaiden, she's a princess. Given that Tarantino's story is divorced from reality in multiple ways, given that his characters are not intended to be grounded, it is especially telling that he reduced what could have been a fierce warrior into a damsel. I suppose I should be happy I didn't notice any egregious shots of her feet. (That was a low blow, but I don't apologize for it.)

And all of this served to distract from what I felt was worthwhile in the film, drowning out the ideas (I am much more interested in a film's ideas, you may have noticed), possibly because Tarantino is and was and always will be more interested in homage, in reflecting the world of films and not reflecting the world. If that's his goal, I suppose that's all right, but wrapping that around a story of slavery just seems to be a waste. Since his style is decidedly outlandish and drawn from the rich history of cinema, he very well could have used all of that to say much, much more, or to focus on the parts of his story that did have more to say, but what we got was the noise of a camera swooping in for a close up and the spatter of blood in enormous volume.

The one aspect of the film that did serve the more complex narrative seems to be the performances, notably Waltz and Foxx and Jackson. Foxx's stood out to more than just me, so it would be redundant to detail just how his performance played out (physically, the way I prefer it), but it certainly served the theme well to show his facial expressions in such exquisite detail. As he indulged his white supremacist character as a Mandingo-analyst, there were hints of disquieting self-revulsion, masked by his hard exterior. As he watched Hildy, his careful checking of his passionate anger made his eyes twitch (Tarantino watered this down by repeatedly showing Django's gun, as my roommate pointed out, instead of trusting the audience to read Foxx well). As he struggled with shooting a man in front of his son, as he let hope stir in the moments before freedom, as he let his confusion of a life outside slavery push him around, you could see it all there, and with a relative lack of dialogue. (To Tarantino's credit, he resisted his evident urge to put reams of words in Django's mouth.) His quiet personality mingling with his evident rage spoke volumes about the consequences of slavery on the human soul more eloquently than anything else in the film.

(I fear as I reread this that my words will come off as more condemnatory of the beautiful people writing on this site than I intend. I will reiterate here that I would not dream of telling you what or how to write about films. I merely referenced the content of this site as a reflection of the film's ability to convey a meaningful message and nothing more. I certainly do not think I could match Simone's review for insight or quality, and I I would not dare suggest his Cookieship is anything but superlative. I merely, once more, refer to a statistical anomaly.)

Sally Jane liked these reviews