by Coop Cooper
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has evolved a great deal as a filmmaker since he wrote and directed “Reservoir Dogs” in the 1992. Refusing to join the Directors Guild so that he could sidestep Hollywood bureaucracy and have total control over his projects was a bold move that few could have pulled off. It gave him nearly unprecedented creative control over big-budgeted films spawned from his fertile imagination. The downside to this he has no one to reign him in when he makes dubious stylistic decisions and while “Django Unchained” is a superior films in most regards, Tarantino could have used a few respected advisers who might have discouraged him from lapsing into his more questionable cinematic fetishes.
Set a couple of years before the Civil War, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by a German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who hopes Django can positively identify three outlaw brothers posing as plantation overseers. Schultz soon befriends Django and makes him a partner in his business, training him to become deadly with a gun. Django relishes his new job as a man-hunter but above all he wishes to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who has been sold to the repulsively evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django concoct a scheme to free Broomhilda, but Candie’s equally evil house servant, Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), catches onto their plan, setting the stage for a violent showdown.
A Tarantino film always features fine actors, witty dialogue and interesting story lines. “Django Unchained” is no exception. Inspired from the stylish Spaghetti Western “Django” franchise from the 60’s, most of the time it’s a highly entertaining piece of cinema. I would recommend it as must-see viewing, comparable to some of the best films of 2012. Some of it fell victim to poor decisions. Other parts of it rubbed me the wrong way.
Much of it could have been trimmed out for a more manageable runtime. While most films wisely stick with a three-act structure, “Django” – for no good reason – had four. The fourth act plunges the film into an eye-rolling parody, ruining many of the greater scenes that came before it. To make matters worse, Tarantino made a baffling choice to use the same hyper-bloody squibs Robert Rodriguez used when he collaborated with Tarantino in the “Grindhouse” film “Planet Terror.” A squib is the special effect used when someone gets shot in a film an a few ounces of blood pop out from articles of clothing and splatter outwards. “Django” uses quarts instead of ounces, resulting in outrageous amounts of blood that was used strictly for a larf in the horror film “Planet Terror” but was erroneously deemed appropriate for this movie. So much of the film was beautifully shot and acted, then BOOM someone gets shot and it’s like the blood-pouring-from-the-elevator scene from “The Shining.” Pretty dumb.
While it is technically an ‘exploitation’ film homage and it’s obvious Tarantino didn’t mean any harm, “Django Unchained” doesn’t do the State of Mississippi any favors. Even for the time period, it is portrayed as one of the most vile places on Earth; dirty and squalid, where human life means nothing to those who live in beautiful houses and drink out of coconuts. It reenforces the ugliest of stereotypes, both black and white. I look at cartoonishly nefarious characters like Calvin Candie and cringe at the idea that he is an example of how the world perceives southerners and native Mississippians. Likewise I cringed as the audience hooted and applauded when Django gunned down an unarmed white woman during the finale – who wasn’t so much a villain as she was guilty-by-association. If the bad guys were disgusting and racially hateful for killing the helpless, then what does that make Django?
The stigmas of the state presented in movies like this may or may not have socioeconomic repercussions for Mississippi, but moreso, I’m weary of seeing the relentless shaming of the state by Hollywood. At least films like “The Help” signaled a positive change in attitude without washing over the past. “Django” is meant as pure entertainment without making a heavy-handed statement, but it does damage to the state’s reputation, intended or not. Slavery was a terrible reality but this film multiplies the ugliness of it to the level of high camp and I’m afraid some people who have limited knowledge of the region may mistake those exaggerated qualities as being accurate and current… a depressing thought considering it’s impossible to avoid witnessing people (on TV or otherwise) openly make ignorant remarks about the South or exploit the stereotypes for laughs. All they know is what Hollywood (including Quentin Tarantino) shows them.
Many are criticizing Tarantino for the violence in “Django” or the fact that he, as a caucasian, has no business flaunting taboos by making exploitive, racially-divisive films. I’ll let others with bones to pick address those issues, but I think “Django” is absolutely worth seeing for those who can stomach it or won’t take any part of it seriously. As a Western revenge tale, it’s a lot of fun, but if you’re sensitive to the issues I brought up in this review, you will want to skip it.
Rating: 3 out of 5