Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: Django Unchained!

It's no secret that Django Unchained is a triumph. Basking in critical acclaim and a slew of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) this film is all the proof you need that not only does writer/director Quentin Tarantino still have it, but in fact he never even lost it. It's well-performed, beautifully crafted, thoroughly entertaining, thought-provoking and, at times, heart-breaking. But is it really one of Tarantino's best?

I was utterly engaged throughout the vast majority of Django's near three hour running time but then a moment occurred where - for want of a better term - everything went south. A decision is made which to me seems less motivated by the character than it is by the screenwriter, and from that point forward I began to disengage.

You already know why this film is better than 99% of what is out there. I agree with that too. But to delve a little deeper, join me for a heavy SPOILER filled discussion... after the jump!

If you're still here then I'm assuming that you have seen the film. If you haven't, then all the review you need is: "This film is amazing, well worth your time, go and see it now. You deserve it." What I really want to do now is discuss specifics, as well as canvas the thoughts of others who have seen it. We're going to talk about character deaths and all that sort of spoiler-heavy stuff, so seriously, if you haven't seen it yet, head for the hills!

OK... Now firstly, I love what Tarantino is achieving here. I love the premise of the film. It's a solid companion piece to the revisionist history of Inglorious Basterds and I love how Tarantino empowers people. He knows how to get an audience pumped. His films are ultra violent but it is a lurid fantasy violence designed to be cathartic.

I have not seen the less-than-well-received George Lucas produced Red Tails but I do recall George talking about that film and saying that African Americans didn't have the fantasy heroic history that is frequently seen in films about white people. He wanted to give them that with the over-the-top Red Tails, and with Django Unchained Tarantino exponentially ups the ante with his kick-ass, avenging hero who decimates the South.

I say all this because I want to be clear that, while the decisions that fashioned the ending left me somewhat cold, the ending itself is still both effective and affecting. When Django is walking through that house, guns blazing, while rap music throbs in the background, I am just as pumped as you are. All those moments still grab me and I feel that the audience would have felt robbed had there not been a bloodbath. The entire film we want that release, and no one can blame Tarantino for wanting to deliver it.

My real issues with the film all boil down to a single decision. And, as you may have guessed, it's Christoph Waltz's King Schultz literally off-the-cuff decision to kill Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie.

I think that Tarantino does a good job at showing us how Schultz has been rattled by the dog incident, and I'm sure it could be argued that it alone is enough to make Schultz fly off the handle. I know that this in some ways reflects Tarantino's views on real life violence and I've read him quoted as such in the past. He has said that real violence appears and we're not prepared for it. It's a sudden, unexpected act not necessarily preempted by the trappings of movie storytelling. That I understand.

But in this very specific instance, for me it flies in the face of what Schultz appears to be about. His defining feature, which I think we all instantly fall in love with in the film, is his intelligence. He can be relaxed and over confident because he is always many steps ahead of those that are around him. And I feel he approaches every situation with a well considered plan. And I believe that his other commendable feature is his bond with Django - as he says, he feels responsible for him after setting him free and he certainly goes out of his way to accomodate him. Schultz becomes incredibly invested in reuniting Django and his wife and takes on an awful lot of risk to make it happen.

So why does he, in a moment of temper (or is it temptation?) throw every single thing he's worked for away by shooting Calvin Candie? He is not only willing to sacrifice his own life but he also, in effect, completely jeopardises Django's escape and is thereby responsible for all of the tortues inflicted upon Django that follow. Knowing that it Schultz' lack of restraint that has stopped the plan from working and that Schultz has put Django in a horrible situation suddenly makes it hard to empathise for one of the main characters we were rooting for. 

It's a difficult situation for everyone, but most of all for screenwriter Tarantino who I feel effectively paints himself into a corner with the brilliant proceeding scene. I think that the dinner table sequence where Candie flips out is a wonderful ratcheting of tension with killer dialogue and performances. It's perfect - one of Tarantino's best - and I love its unexpected resolution. Candie is seconds away from smashing in someone's skull but, as soon as the deal is struck, it's time for cake again. All Candie wanted was to win and be smarter than everyone else in the room. Once he'd done that he relaxes and becomes amicable again. I love that choice. Candie is a well realised character.

But the problem with that (terrific) scene is that it also forces the film into resolution. If all Django wanted was his wife returned to him, then he has accomplished that. Schultz's plan paid off (in a round about way - not exactly as planned but he still got Candie's attention) and the three of them are free to go. However there's one final problem - and it rests on Tarantino's shoulders - if he lets them go then the audience don't get the bloodbath they're expecting. Someone has to throw a spanner in the works and for some reason its Schultz.

Maybe on future viewings (which there'll will be plenty of because it's a great film) I will recognise that this is in fact a solid choice because it make Schultz more human and flawed. But while I might be able to believe that he would throw away his own life in order to avenge the atrocities he had seen, it will always trouble me that he was willing to throw away the lives of Django and his wife as well. It just doesn't ring true to the character. Yes, the audience needs their bloodbath and Candie must be punished, but I would rather have seen him be smart enough to step away from the situation and come back with an ingenious plan. It was what he was good at and what he was known for.

Because lets be honest, the film essentially ends with Django storming the plantation, murdering everybody and blowing it up. And we want him to do that, but, as Schultz points out when they first make their plan - they can't just go in and kill and steal. If they do that they are criminals and would be found and hung. They needed to be smart. If all Django was going to do was storm in and murder everyone then he could have done that an hour into the film and skipped all that other stuff. Because the film refuses to dwell on it at the end, but Django leaves the film a murderer and a very good candidate to be hung. The fact that he has all that paperwork seems superfluous - especially considering it was signed by Calvin the night of his death.

When the bloodbath occurs, the film is so satisfying and the bad guys get punished and you might forget about all that other stuff. It might not be important to you. It might have never even occurred to you. But that last half hour or so distracted me a bit because I expect so much of Quentin Tarantino. I want his scripts to be incredibly tight. I wanted this to be at least as good as Inglorious Basterds and as it is it's so damn close, but that one odd decision made it fall a little short. I think Inglorious Basterds is almost flawless in its construction. I wanted Django to be the same.

In the grand scheme of things it's a minor gripe. Django Unchained is a magnificent film that is worthy of the praise that has been heaped on it. But it's fun to dig a little deeper sometimes and I'm curious to hear your thoughts. (If you're contributing to the comments, maybe ramble for a sentence or two before saying anything spoilery as our recent comments do get previewed on the front page of our site). 

Oh and one other thing - Quentin Tarantino sure can write and direct a film but he cannot do a convincing Australian accent. Seeing him struggle with his lines in a theatre full of Australians resulted in a number of jeers and giggles. Sorry, Quentin! Stick to what you know!


  1. Waltz was even an adorable nazi. he was horrible, but so likeable. and thoroughly adorable in this instance. ugh, massive talent-crush.
    I loved the hood scene. loved it. i would happily just watch that on loop. it was fantastic.

  2. I was super excited for this movie and after last year feeling let down by bunch of films (prometheus, Skyfall being my main disappointments) I loooved this movie and I'm thinking about when I can go see it again

    ok now the spoilierish comment
    I think it comes down to pride. Schultz lost to a man he despised. Yeah sure he could have shook Calvin's hand to shoot him a gain another day but that would have meant he would have lost, Calvin had outsmarted him and he couldn't have that.

    Like Calvin said, he was a bad loser.

    It's very similar to There Will be Blood between Eli and Daniel

    The only thing I'm not sure if I liked was one of the song choices at the end where they used samples from the movie in the song. If the samples were relevant to what was happening then maybe it would be ok but it just felt off. This is such a small gripe though, I'm wondering if the second time I watch it if it will bug me as much

  3. This bloody, hilarious, shocking, and righteously angry film is the kind of great art and great trash [Tarantino] aspires to make.

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