Off Topic: Thoughts on Django Unchained

Ronald Martinez

I watched Django Unchained last night, and it made me want to write a few things about it.

I watched Django Unchained last night.  It was the first time I'd seen it.  And yes, it came out in the theaters a year ago...but I have kids, which means I don't watch movies nearly as much as I did in my younger days.

It also has me wondering if I would have felt differently about this movie if I'd seen it in my younger days, rather than in my 40s.  Because my takeaway from this movie was that it was well acted, well directed, the cinematography and sets and the like were all well done...but it was nevertheless an exceedingly unpleasant, a movie that was uncomfortable to watch and difficult for me to enjoy.  Have I grown old and stodgy and boring?  Am I no longer part of Quentin Tarantino's target audience?  Would the 22 year old AJM have embraced this film?

Django is basically revenge porn, and it seems in that regard like a spiritual sequel to the Kill Bill movies, with a protagonist who suffers such indignities and deprivations that the audience is supposed to be, I guess, inspired to cheer once he is able to, as Jules Winfield would say, "lay my vengeance upon thee."  And in this instance, Tarantino appears to be making Django an avatar of all slavery in general, the violence he unleashes the payback for centuries of mistreatment at the hands of the slave traders and slave owners, symbolic retribution for generation after generation of persecution and genocide.

But to me, it all seems so pointless, so shallow in this film.  It feels like there is a really good movie in there somewhere, something really substantial and meaningful.  You can see that when Django, newly freed, has to sit back and abide the mistreatment of slaves by the plantation owner Calvin Candie, stay silent so he can move forward with the plan to free his wife from Candie's clutches.  You can see that in the first quarter or so of the movie -- which almost seems like it comes from another film -- showing the bonding between Django and Dr. Schultz, the partnership that develops between them, the decision by Schultz to cast himself in with Django to help him rescue his wife.

Those moments, though, end up getting subsumed by the cartoonishness of so much else that Tarantino puts on the screen.  There's an entire set piece where Don Johnson (playing plantation owner "Big Daddy") and Jonah Hill (in a cameo that is pointless, other than to jar you out of the moment and say, "Hey, that's Jonah Hill") are getting ready to lead a group of Klansman to attack Schultz and Django, only to have the men devolve into bickering over whether they can see through the eyeholes cut in the bags that are serving as their masks, with one Klansman storming off in a huff because his wife had worked all day on those bags and no one appreciates them.  It is an amusing scene, but it feels like it is coming from another movie...its like something out of "Blazing Saddles," or some other comedy/parody Western.

And that is, I think, one of my biggest problems with Django Unchained.  It doesn't seem, to me, that Tarantino really knows what kind of movie he wants to make.  He jumps from scenes of brutal violence towards slaves, something that seems like it would come from a Roots remake or Glory or something of that ilk, to rank clownishness.  And then he juxtaposes that with scenes of violence that are so cartoonish in nature that it almost seems to be wanting this to be treated as slapstick.

I compared this movie to Kill Bill earlier, but it is also reminiscent of the Brian de Palma version of Carrie, in that everything in the movie seems designed to bring us to a bloodbath at the conclusion.  Everything Django goes through seems to be constructed with an eye towards adding to his suffering, in order to make the destruction that much greater at the end of the movie, when his fury is unleashed.

And I guess that's what makes this movie so disappointing for me.  Taking a step back, its as if Quentin Tarantino said, "I want to have a movie that is as violent as possible in as many ways as I can possibly think of, while having an excuse to use the word 'nigger' as much as possible in a manner where I won't be criticized for using the word, and where I can end the film in a completely over-the-top rampage that will have the audience leaping to their feet and cheering when blood and brains splatter everywhere."  And then he came up with a plot and a setting that would enable him to put that into place.

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