I’m truly not sure what I thought of this. As of right now, besides Death Proof, I think this is my least favorite Tarantino film. In theory I was hoping it would be my favorite but after watching it there were so many tiny things I could not stop thinking about that it took me out of the film. For instance, there is an actor that plays two roles, and they never explain it? There is a girl that, though fully covered and clean looking, is in this gross gang? And Tarantino himself shows up. It’s very distracting. I think the last time I saw him was when he was on American Idol, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I definitely don’t want to say that I didn’t like it. Leonardo DiCaprio was outstanding, the fight scenes where brutal and fantastic, and, well, I’m sure there is more that I liked but I really need to think some more on this. Also the first time we meet DiCaprio’s character there is a billiard type table in the room that someone is playing. But it wasn’t pool or bumper pool, and it had ramp-like sides? It was really bugging me that I didn’t know what that was. Maybe I just need to stop thinking so much during films but for Tarantino movies I feel like he spends a lot of time in the details and for this one I feel like he fell short.
Django Unchained isn’t just a revenge fantasy. With Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino used revenge to re-write history with Jews killing Nazis and, eventually, Hitler. But Django Unchained feels a little more intimate, for a number of reasons: the scale is not as grand, there are fewer characters, and, as an American (especially one who grew up in the South), the subject hits much closer to home.
There’s a lot of ground to cover here. First of all, Django Unchained is, for me, a convenient mix of two major obsessions in my life: Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino. I never really thought about them working together, but I’m so happy they did. Leonardo DiCaprio is just so good and I thought his character of Calvin J. Candie was by far the most interesting. The other main characters have pretty clear intentions and goals: Calvin Candie is just weird and unpredictable.
Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Schultz, reminded me a lot of Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds, Aldo Raine. Raine was not a Jew, but was so disgusted by the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, he led an army of Jews that would eventually kill Hitler. And while Schultz is not black and has no personal stake in slavery, he is so disgusted by the idea of it that he risks everything to free and help a slave. For a lot of the movie, I thought Schultz was on the border of being a bit of a one-dimensional character; we really don’t know much about him except what’s happening in the present of the story. But that changed when we saw Schultz brooding in Candieland after the confrontation with Candie over buying Django’s (Jamie Foxx) wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Despite almost failing at the task he and Django had been working toward (saving Broomhilda) as well as almost getting killed, that’s not what Schultz is thinking of. Instead he’s having flashbacks to the brutal murder of a runaway slave, who was torn apart to death by dogs, which he witnessed earlier and tried to prevent, but backed down at risk of blowing his cover as a non-sympathetic slaver. While he has flashbacks, a harpist plays Beethoven, and he finally snaps and violently yells at the harpist to stop playing Beethoven, as he, as a German, obviously doesn’t feel like Candieland is deserving of German music. He puts this all aside for a while, still trying to keep in mind the goal of getting himself, Django, and Broomhilda out with their lives and freedom. But as a final fuck you, even after all the papers are signed, Candie insists Schultz shake his hand to seal the deal. He knows how repulsed Schultz is, and he can’t resist rubbing his power in Schultz’s face. Instead of shaking his hand, though, Schultz shoots Candie dead, essentially killing himself in the process as he knowingly stands a few yards away from Candie’s shotgun-wielding bodyguard. It’s like his guilt overcomes him to the point that he is willing to die, but he can’t help but take Candie down with him. Now, this temporarily complicates things for Django and Broomhilda, but Schultz’s last look to Django seemed to indicate that he trusts Django’s skills will get him and Broomhilda out, without any more help from Schultz. This whole turn from Schultz prevented his character from being an entirely saintly figure and more of a human one.
Django Unchained deals with a lot of interesting issues, including black-on-black violence during a time where one would like to think there was nothing but unity among black people, all toward the common goal of freedom. But as Candie’s most trusted slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) shows, self-preservation can easily overcome the preservation of one’s race. By revealing Schultz and Django’s plan to Candie, Stephen completely fucks them, and knows it. He’s disdainful of Django because he’s free, but it doesn’t seem to be out of jealously but rather because he believes Django should be a slave. Why doesn’t Stephen help Django and Broomhilda, as fellow black people and slaves? Because it would be more beneficial to him to look good to Candie and to keep Candie from potentially getting mildly screwed over. It’s almost a Stockholm Syndrome type of thing: even though Candie owns Stephen, Candie has granted Stephen power over the other slaves of Candieland, elevating him to a position that he wouldn’t get as a free man. So, for him, it’s so much more worth it to reveal the plans of escape than to help our heros, that helping them doesn’t even cross his mind.
Despite all of this (and a lot more) to mull over, Django Unchained still maintains the Tarantino standby of bloody violence and badassness. It doesn’t really matter that Django couldn’t actually stand so close to the plantation house when he blows it up, because it’s just fucking cool. It was also interesting to me to see some of the audience’s reactions, as there were several walk-outs. That made me wonder if some people really knew what they were getting to, because although the trailer highlights the black versus slavers awesomeness, it’s still a Quentin Tarantino movie, and there’s still going to be at least one body-ridden, blood-spattered room. There were also a lot of black people in the audience, and their reactions were interesting to me. It’s hard to watch anyone be enslaved, tortured, and/or murdered, but as a white person, it only effects me to a certain point before the separation becomes apparent. A few times during the movie, I tried to imagine that instead of all black people being enslaved, what if this were a movie of all women being enslaved, no matter what color? As a woman, it would be next to impossible to watch a whole movie about women being enslaved, tortured, beaten to death, torn to death by dogs, etc etc, and the mixture of silence and disgusted sounds that came from some of the black audience members were interesting to me.
Lastly, I’m glad Tarantino took the time to highlight the hell hole that Mississippi truly is. For a lot of the beginning of the movie, which was filed mostly in Wyoming, Django and Schultz ride through snowy mountains and green pastures. But when Mississippi is in the mix, the first shot we see are chained, and sometimes masked slaves, being whipped as they walk through mud while the word MISSISSIPPI scrawls across the screen. Pretty telling.
It’s not my favorite Tarantino, but that’s mostly because, to me, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds are sort of untouchable. But it’s definitely great.