Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself once again, but Django Unchained, his longest, bloodiest and angriest film yet, is not necessarily better off for it. This cartoonish Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation epic tackles the ignominy of American slavery while retaining the wordy humor and gratuitous action typical of the auteur’s work. It makes for an entertaining two hours and 45 minutes that never bores, but Django’s identity crisis precludes it from saying really anything about its sensitive subject matter.
From the opening credits, where Django (Jamie Foxx) and a gang of whip-scarred slaves shamble through the desert, the film insists on depicting slavery in explicit and uncompromising detail. There are grainy 16mm close-ups of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), wailing as an overseer relishes in maiming her frail body with a whip. There are at least 100 historically accurate racial epithets, used more often as shorthand than as heated insults. A central plot point involves the fictional gladiator sport of “Mandingo fighting,” where two slaves fight to the death with their bare hands. White owners lock a naked slave inside a steel “hotbox” and feed another to rabid dogs. This is Tarantino’s first film with scenes I found tough to watch.
It is worth noting that the brutality above occurs mostly off-screen, while the abundant shootouts focus on every spurt, mist and trickle of viscous blood, often in slow-motion. Even in the underexposed first scene, when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) guns down Django’s owners in the dead of the night, Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Hugo, JFK) backlight the murders to make the bloodshed startlingly visible yet comically abstract. A shot of an overseer’s blood splattering over cotton buds is even quite pretty, not to mention a shameless metaphor. There’s a clear divide between the violence against slaves and everyone else — as a rule of thumb, the more blood a character loses on screen, the less you should care about him or her. It’s welcome, if not really brave or original, to elevate slaves above their owners — this is a Blaxploitation pastiche, after all — but by trivializing one current of violence and coarsening the other, Django props up America’s darkest chapter of history as justification for an ultraviolent and by-the-numbers revenge plot.
Tarantino lays the groundwork for a mature meditation on violence, which most would agree he’s about due for. Before saving Broomhilda from “Candyland,” a vast plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django and Schultz raise money as morally questionable bounty hunters. Though the bounties always advise “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the two take no chances and only turn in corpses. The sudden introduction to this practice makes for a bit of classic Tarantino dialogue, as Schultz cites little-known laws to talk a lynch mob into paying him $200. Later, there’s a haunting moment when Django snipes an outlaw from atop a cliff-face and we see and hear a panicked little boy run to his dead father’s side. But as the film jumps to the “rescue” second act and especially the final “revenge” act, this ambiguity disappears and the sides revert to unimaginative stereotypes. For all the sick fun Tarantino is having with us, it is disappointing that the trade-off is of any meaningful insight into the fertile, if problematic, backdrop of slavery.
Harsh as I may sound, Django Unchained is indeed a lot of sick fun. Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson have jumped to the front of the Oscar race thanks to Tarantino’s juicy lines and monologues. DiCaprio’s speech about phrenology and the “subservience” of the “Negro brain” ranks up there with the Superman suit soliloquy in Kill Bill, and Jackson as Calvin’s parroting, conniving Uncle Tom inspires perhaps the film’s most grounded discussion on race. There are peculiar yet wise casting choices, like Jonah Hill as a bumbling white supremacist, Miami Vice’s Don Johnson as a plantation owner and Dexter’s James Remar, who for some reason plays two different characters. With his thirst for violence and limited psychological insight into his character, Django is the weakest of the bunch, with as much depth and charm as a generic video game anti-hero. His painfully passive wife fares no better; Washington admitted to IndieWire how she “barely survived” shooting the film, a believable toll considering every scene asks her to scream, shudder and surrender all agency. Once the film hits its second or third ending and the far more interesting characters have met their fate, the film reminds you that it’s all a love story, after all. The romance is as enchanting as … again, a video game comes to mind.
Django Unchained is a hell of a movie, for better or worse. As a long-time admirer of Tarantino’s oeuvre, I am content that this film merely exists and further pleased that it’s a seething and energetic marathon of cinema. But Tarantino’s maximalist approach here reveals his weaknesses, as his dedication to being a bloody, composite filmmaker flattens the nuances required for great filmmaking. Sure, there are nuances and flourishes here and there — nothing screams “final cut privilege” like multiple extreme close-ups of Schultz pouring Django his first beer. Yet somewhere a broader artistic statement is lost, which is almost fatal for a film with a subject that requires some tact. Whereas Inglourious Basterds wisely shied away from the heavier horrors of the Holocaust and instead stuck to full-out satire, Django Unchained accosts slavery in all its squalor and offers no better endgame than a “kill them all” revenge fantasy. It is awkward to come away from a film about slavery and think how the director needs to grow up.