Yesterday, Jersey Girl in Portland and I went to see Django Unchained [ imdb ]. Roger Ebert and Ta-Nehisi Coates have already covered the angles on this movie much better than I could, so I commend you to their comments if you’re considering the film, or even just wondering about it. Meanwhile, I’ll add my two cents.
This is classic Tarentino. Everything from the typography of the opening credits to the score reflects film history: spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation films, revenge flicks. As critic John Shales once said of True Lies [ imdb ], this movie is so far over the top it makes all previous attempts at wretched excess seem like timid understatement. The viewer is signaled from the very beginning to simultaneously not take it too seriously, and yet to go deep with the film as it ventures into difficult and dangerous territory.
It’s very hard to have an honest conversation about slavery in our culture. The defensive pride of Southern white culture (my birth culture, and that of my ancestors these past seven generations and more) colors our national consciousness deeply. Racism, both historical and present day, stains that national consciousness even more deeply. I don’t believe I’d call Django Unchained an honest conversation, either, but it at least leverages an approach that isn’t typical.
The movie relies heavily in stereotyping. This is explicitly acknowledged even within the film’s narrative structure, and given the nature of the storytelling, I’m okay with it. Likewise, the geography is confused, to put it mildly, but the location shots were obviously chosen to emphasize the nature of individual scenes, not to document the landscape of Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi. A touch I liked was that the towns and people of the era were portrayed in realistic, muddy misery the likes of which I have not personally seen on film since Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man [ imdb ].
As for the characters, one rapidly falls in love, or at least in fascination, with both Christoph Walz’ socipathically murderous Dr. King Schultz and Jamie Foxx’ one-in-ten-thousand Django. Their “buddy” story arc is also stereotypical of film, but very well done. To that end, the deep cleverness of Schultz plays well against Django’s relentless determination and nearly superhuman competence. Though the movie glaringly telegraphs us to focus on Django, I’m not sure this isn’t really Schultz’ story. He is more changed by events than Django. Django, after all, plays out his destiny, admittedly against tremendous odds. Still, he is becoming who he was apparently born to be. It is Schultz who materially changes the course of his life, and ultimately pays a larger price for his choices than Django does.
The other characters are so steeped in the era’s unselfconscious immorality of slavery that they are chilling for that quality. We are supposed to be revulsed by and despise Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, for example, and we are; but I ultimately found Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, the lead house n****r (pardon the censorship, but that is the term the film uses, and it will cause this blog problems with search engines and filters if I spell it out), the most frightening character. His evil is perhaps the most relentless and appalling of them all.
I recommend this film highly, assuming you can tolerate Tarantino’s signature penchant for exaggerated, bloody violence. The movie is at times funny, loving and moving, but it is overall impressive as heck.