Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★½


Opening scene encapsulates the pleasure and the problem, serving as a fractal representation of the movie as a whole. A great deal of strained politesse; a sudden eruption of violence (fine); further politesse, now rendered overtly comic by the aftermath; then further violence that in an ordinary film would have been merely implied, the necessary action having concluded (less fine). Because Django is coded as an exploitation flick, QT has given himself license to do what he wants in certain respects—complaining about those respects is tantamount to criticizing the genre itself. There are precious few truly great straight-up exploitation flicks, though, and by taking on their license he also takes on their inherent limitations. A less long-winded way of putting it is that the film becomes problematic for me when it arrives at Candyland (following what one eventually realizes is a very, very long prologue) and proceeds to "turn ugly" without actually turning ugly. Smart people I know place Reservoir Dogs at or near the bottom of QT's oeuvre but there's more genuine feeling and (especially) serious moral inquiry in the Orange-White relationship than in this entire three-hour bloodsport fable, which even tosses aside its most potentially powerful moment (Django and Hildy's initial reunion) in favor of a cute gag. Foxx gives a monumental performance until QT fits him with anachronistic designer shades and starts moving him around like the iconic mannequins of his beloved '70s films; again, it's justifiable on the most basic level, but that doesn't stop me from wishing he'd demonstrated more intelligence and less retro-cool, since we know very well he's capable of much more. (He was actually capable of ending the film in a particularly unexpected spot that would have transformed Django into a brilliant mirror-image companion piece for Basterds, rather than just a more amusing [editorial opinion] rehash. That this would also have spared us his ghastly attempt at an Australian accent is further cause for regret.)

All of that's Ed, when Django isn't deliberately dumbing itself down or taking an unseemly delight in cinema's juiciest squibs (every body has 3 or 4x the "normal" amount of blood and soft tissue), it's as loquaciously delectable as any of Tarantino's pictures, with Foxx providing a welcome counterpoint of moody silence. I even came around to Sam Jackson once he toned down that initial bizarre amalgam of Stepin Fetchit and George Jefferson and found a craftier style of self-loathing. (Waltz would be a revelation were that possible twice; it's a warmer tweak on Hans' savage civility, so you just nod.) It's a good movie, but, again, Tarantino is capable of more than this. Semi-disowning Death Proof and making a sort of Basterds 2 tells me he's listening too hard to the wrong critics. Or, worse, to his audience.