Spoiler Level: Low
Since so much controversy has sprung up around the new Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, I want to be absolutely clear about where I'm coming from on this.
While I recognize, and agree with, many of the criticisms of the film that have emerged in the cultural debate, they're not really my central focus. (For a discussion of some of these issues, see our bonus review, in which our Senior Black Correspondent & Unenthusistic Critic—my girlfriend N.—joins me in a brief conversation.)
Myself, I don't really have that big a problem with Tarantino's decision to set a "Spaghetti Southern" against the backdrop of American slavery: it's staggeringly ill-conceived, but honestly, the fact that we can basically count on two hands the number of significant films—in any genre—that depict this fundamental aspect of our history is shameful, so I find it almost perversely refreshing to see a director touch this third-rail of our collective national conscience so recklessly. Nor do I take particular issue with Quentin's use of the "N-word": personally, I've never found his employment of the word egregious, and to have avoided it here—in a film set in 1850's Mississippi— would have been absurd. I don't object to historical revisionism in the service of storytelling, at least not in such an obviously stylized and fictionalized context. I don't think Django Unchained is gratuitously violent, unnecessarily brutal, or (as some conservative pundits have called it) a "three-hour-long anti-White racism-fest." And—from the other end of the political spectrum—Spike Lee can see whatever he wants, and he's entitled to say whatever he wants, but anything he has to say about a movie he hasn't seen is of no interest to me. (Even if he proves—as he does here—to be right.)
In short, then, my objections are not political, historical, moral, ethical, or linguistic: they're aesthetic. Django Unchained just isn't a very good movie.
As the film opens, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave being marched in chains from one state to another when he is freed—by guile and force—by a loquacious German named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A former dentist, Schultz still drives his medicine wagon—complete with a spring-loaded giant tooth on the top—but he now makes a more lucrative living as a bounty hunter, shooting down wanted men and collecting cash for their bodies. He needs Django to help I.D. his current targets, the Brittle Brothers, in return for which he will pay Django $75 and grant him his freedom.
(That the agent of the black man's liberation is named "Dr. King" should be an indication of how deep a thinker Tarantino is on the subject of race, and therefore how seriously Django Unchained deserves to be taken.)
Their quest leads them to a plantation run by a Colonel Sanders look-a-like (Don Johnson), and into a confrontation with the Klan (played here for comedy as incompetent yokels). Django proves to be quick and deadly with a firearm, and he and Schultz prove a good team, so after they've dispatched the Brittle Brothers they throw in together to do some more bounty hunting and stretch out the film's already bloated running time a little more. All of this, however, is prelude: the real story at the center of the film is Django's quest to rescue his wife Broomhilda (a totally wasted Kerry Washington) from the clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The second half of the film all centers around the "Candieland" plantation. I don't know what crop (if any) this plantation raises, and neither does Tarantino, since all we really see is the great house Candie runs like a brothel and his thriving side business as a trader and promoter of "Mandingo" fights, pitting one slave against another in bloody deathmatches. The only slave we get to know there is Candie's sly majordomo Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a foul-mouthed older man who—in his identification with his white captors—has gone so far past being an "Uncle Tom" that he almost seems to be the real brains and power at the plantation.
There's an interesting idea to be explored in this Stockholm-syndrome relationship, perhaps, but Tarantino isn't the filmmaker to do it: as it is, Jackson's stereotypical, shuckin' and jivin,' self-hating house slave is written too broadly, and Jackson plays him too anachronistically, for the character to be anything but off-putting. (I'd say he comes across as a minor figure in a Chappelle Show sketch, except Dave Chappelle would have actually found something insightful to say with such a hateful character.)
The truth of the matter is, everything in Django Unchained is pitched too broadly, too ridiculously, and too haphazardly to be taken seriously. All of Tarantino's cinematic fetishes are in force here—his genre-film influences, his fondness for abrupt violence, his cleverness with a musical cue—but never have they been put to so little true dramatic purpose. Django Unchained has none of the well-drawn characters or genuine emotional underpinnings of Tarantino's best films (for my money still Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), and shockingly little of the inventiveness and fun of his more purely entertaining films like Kill Bill 1 & 2.
So all of the controversy around Django Unchained just lends the film a cultural significance it simply doesn't deserve. Worse, it encourages Tarantino to speak about the film in public, which is almost always a mistake: we find him defending the violence as historically justified—"It's like, look, the stuff that we show is really harsh, and it's supposed to be harsh, but it was [actually] a lot worse"—and suggesting that his silly exploitation flick is more authentic than Roots.
If I reviewed films based on the dumb-ass things their directors say I'd have to pan every film Lars von Trier ever made, but the revelation that authenticity was any part of Quentin's plan is illuminating and troubling, because in this context it simply doesn't work. Yes, Django Unchained is excessively violent—like slavery!—but it is violent in an exaggerated, comic way that robs the violence of any impact. The many shoot-outs—while definitely bloody—are far too absurd to disturb: they feature geysers of fake blood, and the Spaghetti-western film physics in which a single bullet can blow one person into bits, and send another flying an improbable distance in an impossible direction.
And that's fine, but Tarantino wants to riff on these silly movie tropes as much as—or in fact more than—he wants to show us the brutality of slavery, and you can't do both effectively. You can't provide a mildly funny Blazing Saddles-type gag about how the Klan can't see through their shoddy homemade hoods, and then pivot to scenes of runaway slaves being torn apart by dogs. (Trying to honestly depict the horrors of slavery here trivializes them: it is kind of like sticking a few minutes from Passion of the Christ into the middle of Life of Brian.) You can't play violence and hatred for comedy, and then try to play it for tragedy. You can't present thin, cartoonish, or super-heroic characters, and then expect us to take it seriously when those characters are tortured. (The sad truth is, the slicing of a single ear in Tarantino's first film carried more real horror and emotional impact than any of the flayings, beatings, and threatened castrations here.) Mostly, you can't expect us to be horrified at the brutality of the Mandingo "battle royale" scene when you have based a film—and a career—on the fact that you get off on watching ultra-violence every bit as much as the presumably reprehensible Calvin Candie.
I dearly wish I'd seen the important and disturbing depiction of the antebellum south that other critics and pundits seem to have found in Django Unchained. I wanted it to be provocative, and shocking, and unsettling, because any film that deals with slavery should fit all those adjectives and more. Instead, what I got was a typically stylish-but-thin Quentin Tarantino film, a silly and improbable revenge caper dressed up in period clothing.
And normally that would be just fine. The truth is, while it's way past time someone made a movie that honestly depicted the evils on which our nation based its economy for three hundred years, Quentin Tarantino would not be my first, or fifth, or twentieth choice of directors to do so. I don't expect a Tarantino movie to be historically illuminating, racially sensitive, or intellectually thought-provoking, and this one isn't: it's just another of QT's usual live-action comic books. The problem is, it's not a particularly good live-action comic book: it's a nearly three-hour mishmash of mildly entertaining set-pieces, half-realized ideas, and wasted performances.
And that's a problem, because the failure of the film to reach even the (highly problematic) entertainment standards of a Blaxploitation action movie means the entire project was catastrophically ill-conceived. Tarantino is a talented director, capable of some remarkable entertainments, but every film he's made seems messier and less disciplined than the last. The result of bringing these increasingly slack standards to this hot-button subject matter makes for a long, tonally inconsistent, only sporadically enjoyable, unholy mess of a movie.
Because she had things to say about it, and because I couldn't con her into writing the review proper, I've convinced my girlfriend N., The Unenthusiastic Critic, to take part in a separate conversation about the controversy and some of the more problematic elements of Django Unchained. Click here to read that (slightly more spoiler-filled) discussion.