Django Unchained (2012)

django-unchained-movie-poster-teaserStarring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Laura Cayouette

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Expectations: Very high. Tarantino is a big western fan, so there’s no way this can’t be great, right?


In a single word, Django Unchained is excessive. Excessive in every possible way. Some movies that trade in excess get by because the excess is fun, or in some way in service of the story, but in Django it’s neither (not that an unflinching slavery movie should be fun). Instead it feels more like Tarantino is simply throwing everything he has at the audience when he should be carefully crafting a tale worth telling. I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with Tarantino and his films, but coming off of the expertly crafted Inglourious Basterds I thought for sure he would deliver something truly memorable. And Django is memorable… for all the wrong reasons. Where the script for Basterds was honed over something like 10 years, Django Unchained was written in a few months and thrown into production soon after. This may be a three-hour “epic,” but it definitely feels a lot closer to Death Proof than I would have liked, at least in terms of the quality of the writing.

As the film opens, a couple of slave traders transport a small group of slaves across the rocky hills and the frozen fields “somewhere in Texas.” They are stopped by a jovial man named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is specifically looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in hopes that he can help him find a trio of wanted men. Thus begins the tale of Django, a freed slave on his way to becoming a fearsome bounty hunter. Or really, that should read: Thus begins the tale of King Schultz and how he frees Django, but not really.

This is a fan poster, but it absolutely nails the visual style of '60s and '70s Italian Westerns, so I had to post it.

This is a fan poster, but it absolutely nails the visual style of ’60s and ’70s Italian Westerns, so I had to post it.

Django Unchained is a movie ripe with things that annoyed me, but one of the most frustrating was the fact that Django is nearly always playing second or third fiddle to the other characters. While I love Christoph Waltz, and I think he does a fantastic job here, he’s given so much dialogue that Jamie Foxx can barely get a word in edgewise. It feels like Tarantino read all those glowing reviews of how Waltz’s character in Basterds was awesome and said to himself, “Yeah, he was awesome! And I wrote him! Damn, I’m great! In my next movie I’ll write him another character and I’ll make him talk more, because bigger is better, baby! Y’know?” The wealth of material written for the character is truly astonishing; the boundaries of “supporting character” are stretched to the absolute breaking point. And forget about it once Leonardo DiCaprio comes into play; it’s the Waltz/DiCaprio variety show until the finale.

Don’t get me wrong: they’re great, but this is DJANGO UNCHAINED! Unchain this motherfucker and let him rip! Isn’t this supposed to be the movie where a slave becomes a free man? Then let him be that free man who speaks for himself! King Schultz frees Django to spend most of the movie just listening to white folks jibber-jabber? I understand that Django’s character is played more for his patience, and his underlying anger, but I felt cheated that Foxx wasn’t front and center throughout. When Django speaks, he asserts himself as a strong, smart man capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone on-screen, but Tarantino barely gives him any dialogue. I understand “Those were the times, so Waltz had to do all the talking,” but this is a Tarantino fantasy for God’s sake, he can do anything he wanted to. He’s clearly proved that throughout his career! So why can’t Jamie Foxx get a dope dialogue scene too? Or two, or three? Tarantino claims to be making a movie about freeing a slave, but then seemingly robs him of that status by not writing the movie for him. It’s ludicrous. And I know that the original Django was a “speak thru his actions” type of guy that said little. But he was a lone drifter, so it doesn’t have the same feeling as just following another guy around the whole movie and not really saying much. I did love how everyone reacted to Django riding a horse into town, though, and the usage of Jim Croce’s I Got a Name, but I guess I just wanted it to go a step further.

One of the most surprising aspects of the film is that I didn’t find it to be a pastiche of the spaghetti western genre (or westerns in general, for that matter), nor did I find it a pastiche of blaxploitation films, although elements of all are present. Instead it feels like a pastiche of Tarantino movies, gathering elements from his own films and regurgitating them back out as something “new.” Tarantino’s ego has grown to the point that he’s not just referencing the films he loves, he’s now referencing himself, creating a strange, inbred movie that feels like Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. It’s like the overly talky second part of Kill Bill, but with western iconography. So while this film may look like “Tarantino’s Western,” that distinction still clearly rests with Inglourious Basterds, the film that looks like “Tarantino’s Men on a Mission Movie.”

django_unchained_ver8_xlgAnd the over-the-top violence. I love over-the-top gore and violence. Any regular reader of the site knows this. But the shit in Django is just ridiculous. I can somewhat understand where he’s coming from by amping up the violence; it’s like Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The abusive violence and racist filth used by the slave owners is unforgivably brutal, so therefore Django will strike back in equally filthy and brutal ways. OK, fine. But wouldn’t the explosive acts of violence, with what have to be the largest squibs in movie history, have more effect if they had some tension behind them? The scene between Django and the Brittle Brothers was intense and a highlight of the movie, and I wish every encounter held that kind of raw power. Tarantino proved he was an absolute master of tension in Basterds, so why isn’t it laid on thick throughout most of Django? I just don’t get it. I understand that he loves old-school exploitation films, and that they also had over-the-top violence, but the violence in Django doesn’t serve much purpose other than to be viscerally exciting and sensationalist.

On a more positive note, the cinematography is excellent and frequently looks stunning. The blood spraying on the cotton that features prominently in the trailer is probably the best shot in the film, but the entire snow sequence also looks amazing. It’s a handsomely mounted production, with perfect set design, costuming and anachronistic musical choices that usually work pretty well (even if I did think the hip-hop over the slo-mo violence was a little too modern and obvious a choice). It’s a shame because amidst all my problems there is a lot to like here (and perhaps I’ll get more out of it on a re-watch). If Tarantino had been reined in a bit, and perhaps cut the film down to below two hours, it would have worked a lot better for me.

I had high hopes that Tarantino’s love of westerns and genuinely affecting revenge tales would make for one of the best films of the year. Instead, I got a film riddled with reminders of Tarantino’s self-indulgent and juvenile tendencies. Even still, I respect Tarantino immensely for making a film about slavery that other filmmakers would never touch. I may not have liked it overall, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s incendiary enough to incite a lot of discussion and critique. Would I rather have seen a black filmmaker take on slavery? You bet, but because Hollywood is the way it is, we might never see that. Hopefully Django does crack the ice a bit, allowing for more careful dissection of America’s dark, racist past.

Oh, and why is he still casting himself in his movies? I wish theaters had those roller coaster cameras so that I had a photograph of my face the moment he came on-screen. Let me tell you: it woulda been a keeper.

I feel like there’s so much more to talk about, but I’m fairly tapped out at this point. My head is swimming with so many thoughts on this movie; it’s hard to get them all down in one go. So if you’ve got an opinion, please share it in the comments, because no matter what I think of the movie it’s definitely one that is easily talked about.

11 comments to Django Unchained (2012)

  • Nice review Will. The central take away is that time after time Tarantino gives people something to talk about. Which is always a good thing.

    • Yes, he definitely gives people something to talk about every time, but I think in this case he had an opportunity to REALLY give people something to talk about and didn’t achieve that. The film is too exploitative to be any worthwhile piece of commentary, but perhaps it will foster some worthwhile discussions. Time will tell, but I imagine this will be regarded one of Tarantino’s lesser films as the years go on.

  • Uncle Jasper

    Great review Will. Your criticisms are pretty spot on and reflect a lot of the frustrations I had with this film as well. I really don’t know what to think of Tarantino half of the time. In my experience, viewing his films has always been a crapshoot. When I first read about Spike Lee riding his ass over this film I thought it was nothing more than jealous words from a filmmaker whose best movies were 20 years behind him. Yet, my first thoughts coming out of Django Unchained were “Wow, that was kinda… disrespectful.” I find it a little strange that Quentin has attempted to make a film about slavery, which is probably the closest he has ever come to socially compelling material, when realistically he is one of the least socially conscious filmmakers I can think of. He managed to turn slavery into a cartoon with his quirky stamp all over it, and I think it’s this that bothers me the most. Watching guys getting torn to shreds by dogs, getting their eyes gouged out on camera, or having their heads crushed by hammers are usually pretty awesome and fun things to see up there on the movie screen. But here, given the stigma of the subject material it just feels wrong, and dare I say a bit trivializing. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino thinks he can get away with it because he’s Quentin Tarantino… and maybe I’m overly sensitive, but watching this film was like walking in on your mom taking a shit. It’s strangely intriguing at first, but leaves you feeling disturbed and gross the longer you let those thoughts linger.

    • Thanks!

      I have to compose myself after imagining the image of you walking in on your mom taking a shit and being strangely intrigued. HAHAHAHA.

      Anyway, you’re exactly right in regards to the violence. In a different context, the individual moments might have been something entertaining, but with the backdrop of slavery they don’t, and shouldn’t, achieve that. They should be deeply affecting, as these racial atrocities demand, but as you say Tarantino isn’t socially conscious so it feels like he’s just trying to make an entertainment movie with a backdrop of slavery. Which feels so disrespectful. This was a real tragedy that happened over hundreds of years and we’re shoving buttered popcorn in our faces and having a grand ole time? Imagine if Basterds had similar scenes involving holocaust victims, would that shit have been as well received as Django? Fuck no it wouldn’t! I don’t know if Tarantino is really racist or anything, but there does seem to be a lot of subliminal shit in the core of Django that make me question him. Just the fact that he didn’t make Django the true star of the film is huge. This makes the movie seem more like Tarantino exploring his obsession with racist white characters, as he clearly had fun writing for them (as well as King Schultz). I think this is why Django doesn’t speak much, because then Tarantino would’ve been forced to give the film some morality and social consciousness, and could no longer exist as the pure fantasy in his head. But when you’re dealing with shit this tragic and real, it’s disrespectful to not treat it with the respect it deserves. It definitely feels like Tarantino is doing it because he’s Tarantino and he knows he can. I would love to see him take some real shit for this movie, and have to deal with it. For some reason he always skates by whatever controversy comes up around his movies.

      • Oh and I just want to add that Sam Fuller always walked that line of socially conscious entertainment so well, and I know Tarantino is a fan, so I wish he’d take a page out of Fuller’s book and really go for the throat of an issue.

  • Great review, Will. Fairly even-handed, I must admit, which is something not a lot of reviewers allow for Tarantino. While I haven’t seen Django yet, I’m on the same page as you re his most recent works, although I really loved Basterds. Typically, though, Tarantino’s films aren’t “must watch” for me, but I’m keen to sit down with a DVD and have a grand time watching even his shittiest work – funnily enough, I was re-watching Death Proof last night, and that film really is one of his worst – I don’t think it’s a bad film per se, but compared to his others, it’s pretty dire. I think what he needs is a producer with balls to pull him up and say “NO” to some of his wankery, to show some restraint where most will simply nod and say “that sounds cool Mr Tarantino”. Which is something I’d like somebody to do for Peter Jackson – might have turned King Kong into a decently structured film….

    • Thanks! Tarantino is definitely a guy that people love or hate, but I’m in the middle. I love Basterds and Jackie Brown, but the others are better in parts than they are in whole. Although, I should say that I haven’t seen Reservoir or Pulp Fiction in so long that I barely remember them. Death Proof was previously his worst movie for sure, but it’s not without a lot of entertainment and I liked it when I re-watched it a few years back. But I think Django is much worse than it simply because of how it plays with slavery and turns it into entertainment. I totally agree, Tarantino has reached that “Lucas Point” where he needs someone with balls to step in and tell him no.

      I don’t agree that Peter Jackson is there, though, he continues to deliver films that I love completely. And King Kong was great! Except for the “running from dinos” scene, I loved everything about that movie. The T-Rex fight was one of the most intense scenes I’ve seen in a theater, helped significantly by the older lady in front of me who kept saying, “Oh shit!” every time they ratcheted the tension up, which was like 100 times.

  • I absolutely loved your review. So far you (along with myself) are the only person I’ve seen on the Net who hasn’t written gushing praise for this movie. Thanks for that. I hadn’t realized Tarantino had resorted to referencing himself, but after reading that, you are 100% right. God, this movie feels like such a missed opportunity. It could have been so much more.

    • Thanks a lot, man! I’m also surprised by how positive everyone’s reactions have been. I think I wanted to see the movie that would happen after the end of this one, where Django is free and fully realized, just doing his thing for the entire film, and for some reason I was sure that was what Tarantino would deliver. Big time missed opportunity for sure. If he was able to show some restraint and think about what was best for the story, it would’ve been a much better movie. Of course, as you mention nearly everyone else loves it, so prepare for the next Tarantino to be even more self-indulgent!

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