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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Django Unchained (review)

Django Unchained green light Christoph Waltz Jamie Foxx

I’m “biast” (pro): love some of Tarantino’s films

I’m “biast” (con): hate some of Tarantino’s films

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This is why I can’t quit Quentin Tarantino, even when some of his films make me so angry I get damn near apoplectic. Because when he’s good, he’s downright genius. When he’s good, he makes me figure he’s not only the best American filmmaker working today but perhaps the most quintessentially American filmmaker ever. When he’s good, he leaves me no recourse but to get as superlative as I can and say ridiculous things like: Is it possible that this nerdy white boy has made the most important, most unmissable film yet about slavery in America– no, wait, about race in America even as it exists as an issue right up to this very day? Could only a nerdy white boy get away with making a movie that combines the fractious urgency of pulp fiction and the visceral gore of splatter movies and the unfettered ranginess of westerns — note: three uniquely American genres — and make it about a black man killing white people and riddle it with countless repetitions of the word nigger… and after all of that leave us with a sense that this is in no way a racist film, and is in fact quite the opposite?

So many marvelous contradictions and astonishments to be found in Django Unchained! How is it that Tarantino — both fearless screenwriter here as well as brash director; he gives himself a cheeky cameo, too — can tell a story that could not be more about race and make it feel postracial? I will guess, for starters, that part of it is down to the character of Django — “the d is silent” — who is one of the juiciest, most complex, most intriguing, most human heroes pulp fiction has ever seen. He just happens to be black– Well, no: he doesn’t “just happen” to be black. As an unexpectedly freed slave in Texas in 1858, there couldn’t be a less color-blind role, yet Hollywood doesn’t “just happen” to tell stories about such men, as a general rule. But Tarantino treats the mere fact of his protagonist with a kind of offhandedness that might mislead you into suspecting there’s nothing particularly unusual about the story he has crafted around Django — and then he hands this role over to Jamie Foxx (Rio, Due Date), who sashays into it with the same casual acceptance. It’s almost as if this is the product of some glorious future world in which black action heroes are as unremarkable in their numbers as white ones.

From Django’s freeing by a bounty hunter who needs his help, Tarantino spins a dark fantasia of the pre-Civil War South that is hilarious, ferocious, shocking, and wise, sometimes all at once. This is Tarantino unchained, even more so than usual. He is unafraid to be pointed, as with the bounty hunter who frees Django: he is a former dentist who is constantly introducing himself as Dr. King Schultz, inevitable emphasis (to our ears, anyway) on the “Dr. King.” He is unafraid to be absurd, crafting for Django a wife still bound in slavery who is called Broomhilda (Kerry Washington: The Details, Lakeview Terrace), dubbed so by a German mistress slaveowner… which creates in Schultz, also a German abroad in the United States, a sense of mythic obligation for him to help Django rescue her, what with Brunhilde, her namesake, being a German national heroine and all. And brilliantly, Tarantino dares to cast the indispensable Christoph Waltz (Carnage) as Schultz, in a very different role from the Nazi he played in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is as deadpan funny here as he was chilling there, and in any other film that wasn’t so crammed full of awesome as this one is, you’d have to concede that he steals it. Here, what is one of the best performances of the year is just one more bauble to be dazzled by.

Tarantino plays with the power of myth not only via Broomhilda but all over Django on all sorts of levels, both overt and meta. It’s in the Bible pages one disgusting white overseer has pinned to his clothes in preparation for a “righteous” whipping of a slave. It’s in the unexpected relationship between brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (a savage Leonardo DiCaprio: J. Edgar, Inception) — to whose enterprise Django and Schultz trace Broomhilda — and his slave butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson [Marvel’s The Avengers, The Samaritan], simply fantastic), which undercuts literal and figurative black-and-white notions about slavery by exploring the complicity of some slaves in enforcing the servitude of others. It’s in how he holds up for ridicule white men in white hoods, rendering proto Klansman ineffectual buffoons. It’s in the unexpected use of unlikely ananchronistic pop music on the soundtrack, bringing together 20th- and 21st-century myths of open spaces and black power in a way that seems to slam open rooms in the American uber story that had been exclusionary of anyone not white (and again doing so in ways so nonchalant that it’s simultaneously funny and poignant).

Many filmmakers appreciate the mythic power of cinema, but few can so effortlessly whip up moments that create their own instant mythology, as Tarantino does with almost everything that Django does onscreen… while never being self-conscious about it. I don’t just love this film — I love that a film like this can exist and be this delicious and this smart and this daring and this kickass and take no shit from anyone. If Tarantino can get away with this, why do so few other filmmakers even try?

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Django Unchained (2012)
US/Can release: Dec 25 2012
UK/Ire release: Jan 18 2012

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated BWRAO: black and white and red all over
MPAA: rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
BBFC: rated 18 (contains strong bloody violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Damian Barajas

    Must… see.. NOW! I wish it was out where I live. I’ll just have to wait.

  • Patlandness

    @MaryAnn ,

    Just to round out Tarantino’s filmography:  I was curious on what your thoughts were on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction?

  • he makes me figure he’s not only the best American filmmaker working
    today but perhaps the most quintessentially American filmmaker ever.

    So does this mean you’ve changed your mind about Spielberg? ;-)

    This sounds great. I’m looking forward to it (but I’ll be seeing Les Miz first).

  • I’ve never seen Dogs and I like Pulp very much. Perhaps I’ll get around to reviewing them at some point.

  • Re Spielberg: Yeah, maybe.

  • LaSargenta

    When I saw the trailer for this some weeks back (in a theater before seeing Lincoln, I think), I thought to myself, “Ha! He’s giving the Civil War the Inglorious Basterds treatment. Mighta sorta worked once, only going to go to this if Loverman wants to see it.” (It doesn’t help that DiCaprio is in it. I find him annoying. This is despite the presence of so many others I do enjoy watching.)

    So, maybe I’ll go a little more enthusiastically after reading your review. Mind you, I didn’t particularly like IB. http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2009/08/081809inglourious_basterds_review.html#comment-352888457

  • Patlandness

    That would rock.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    [Tarantino] gives himself a cheeky cameo, too

    The hell, you say…

    If Tarantino can get away with this, why do so few other filmmakers even try?

    Oh, please god no.

    Eh, maybe I’m being harsh, but I never even bothered to see Inglorious Basterds because, between Kill Bill and Death Proof, I finally just got tired of Tarantino’s shtick.

  • LaSargenta

    Reservoir Dogs is the only one I can say I was unequivocally impressed with. That probably had a great deal to do with the presence of Tim Roth, whose acting I respect enormously. (The movie he directed, The War Zone, was amazing, too.)

  • Patlandness

    Tim Roth should have got an Oscar nod for RD.  That was an amazing performance as “Mr. Orange”.

  • He’s giving the Civil War the Inglorious Basterds treatment.

    That’s exactly what he’s doing. (This is also in the same neighborhood as *Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.*)

  • Tim Roth is a god. That is all.

  • LaSargenta

    Tim Roth has a fantastic monologue in that movie, a multi-layered breaking of the fourth wall (edited to say “sort of” breaking it, maybe there’s another name for it) monologue that breaks it two ways. Not going to give more details because it would really spoil it. If I were told I had to try out for a dramatic role, I’d do that monologue, doing my very best to channel Roth — even as ridiculous as it would be for a female non-actor to do so.

  • RogerBW

    I wonder whether perhaps this is finally the role that’s right for Foxx. His Ray Charles really didn’t click, for me and quite a few other people in spite of the Oscar; sounds as though he’s got this one rather more right.

  • I_Sell_Books

     Inglorious Basterds is pretty…well, wonderful isn’t quite the right word, but definitely worth 2 hours of your time. The acting is incredible, and the opening scene is 10 minutes of pure psychological terror.  The movie is also cheeky, horrifying, scary, and funny. It feels pretty honest, even though it’s a fantasy. But then, so are most WWII movies…

  • LaSargenta

    And the camera spends way too long on the deaths of the women.

  • Killara29

    I cannot believe you have never seen Reservoir Dogs.  wow.  I didn’t think Kill Bill was that bad, either.  But am really looking forward to this.  Jamie Foxx just looks sooo cool in this

  • Chris

    I love this movie and Tarantino, but Scorsese is still the best working American filmmaker today. 

  • Smith

    Did it not bother you that the female character was a completely helpless damsel in distress? I did like the film, but surely someone with such a determined interest in gender as yourself should have noticed that…

  • Smith

    Sorry for the double-post, not sure why.

  • Javajoe

    Enjoyed the rebelliousness of the film; rebellious in a way it was anything but sanitized for the public.
    Slavery sometimes becomes just a chapter in a high school history book. Quentin reminds one of what it
    was, could have been for the unfortunate, what people of the times thought was okay, etc.. All of this was done
    in part cartoon, part dramatization fashion. I couldn’t help but guffaw at some hilarious scenes even though
    gruesome. Django putting on his sunglasses at night?- That’s Hollywood!

  • Greg Person

    I went to see Django Unchained today and was very impressed. It has a strong plot and dialogue, it tempers its brutality with well placed comic relief, and features top-notch performances (DiCaprio is fantastic). The violence and gore is over the top and often nonsensical, but it works. My biggest gripe is that Brunhilda is given about three short lines in the entire film. Tarantino really doesn’t do anything to build the relationship between her and Django, which is central to the plot but is glaringly absent. Overall, though, I loved this movie. :-)

  • Mr. Pink

    I see no mention of Jackie Brown, possibly Tarentino’s best?  Django is right up there with it. 

  • He didn’t ask about Jackie Brown. Perhaps because he knows I’ve already reviewed it (years ago).

  • Brilliant analysis of an equally brilliant movie… I just can’t agree  agree with you more. Tarantino has always quite cheeky when it comes depiction of power in his movies… but here he is absolutely sublime. He achieves something that’s seldom been achieved in contemporary cinema. I wish the upcoming breed of filmmakers would be more keen on emulating his kind of cinema. His actors complement him really well. While Jackson and DiCaprio deliver standout performances it’s Waltz who once again steals the show in a Tarantino movie.

    Also, please do checkout my review of Django Unchained. Here’s the link:


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