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Django Unchained Review: Now That's a Bingo

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | December 26, 2012 | Comments ()


django-unchained-2.jpg

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained works on two levels. The surface level is that of a simple revenge flick, of the wronged taking up arms in a mission of retribution. From that point of view, it's a movie that has been made a hundred times, usually with Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun as he quick draws. The movie works well in that genre. Played straight, it stands with the best of Western vengeance tales, spiced with Tarantino trademarks of ultraviolence, perfect music, and darkly humorous asides. But the fact that this particular version of the Man with No Name is a former slave cannot be overlooked. The implications of that, and the focus of the story on slavery itself, construct the film's second level and elevate it from effective genre film into something more.

Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic with his take of plantation owner as cruel boy emperor, just this side of Caligula with his slave fights and slightly too familiar affections with his sister. The film highlights what a solid actor DiCaprio is, in ways that his turns as a protagonist in grand historical films have tended to miss. If he doesn't play the villain again, and often, then he is missing a calling. And of course Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx nail their roles as well, and their chemistry together is superb.

Directors like Tarantino have the advantage in their films of attracting known actors even for the smallest of roles. Recognizable faces pop up in scenes throughout, not in cameos per se since the actor is never positioned to steal the scene, but in the small and critical roles that keep the film moving. It's a long film, clocking in at two and a half hours, but it's also the rare long film that never really feels its length. It tells its story in the time it takes to tell it, without any scenes feeling like they are unnecessary, or prompting glances at the watch.

The real beauty of the film though is in its subversion of the typical Western by setting the story in the traditional time, with all the traditional trappings and themes, but pointing its action in the opposite direction. The Western as a genre is older than film, going back to the tail end of the 19th century as the frontier closed and then grew in the eye of imagination.

Westerns have never been about the west, at least in their appeal. The endless pulp novels and frontier paintings of whites under siege did not appeal to the masses in the early twentieth century because they were literally concerned about Indian insurrection on the Great Plains. And certainly as the flow of stories in both print and film did little to slow during the twentieth century, it was something deeper resonating with audiences than the mere surface of interpretation. The Western has always been a peculiarly American meditation on the role of violence in creating civilization in the midst of a savage world.

The staples of the genre are all there in Django Unchained. There is the emphasis on the hard life of the common man, of life on the fringes of society where barbarism and civilization intersect. There's the feeling that civilization is the source of both salvation and terror. There are places where only the the veneer of civilization has reached, where it is still local violence that guarantees what law and order can be had. Where the unscrupulous govern their own private empires of murder with only the rumor of the power of the state somewhere in the distance. And of course, there is the lone gunfighter, the wandering knight errant, who comes to the town run by thugs in order to set things right with cunning and lead.

None of this description would be out of place setting the stage for a dozen Sergio Leone films, but to make the hero black and the corrupted town a plantation is much more than just an obvious trick. It's the inversion of a genre. If the frontier is the land of uncivilization, where violence reigns and life is cheap, then it can be argued that the empire of Southern plantations is not just superficially similar, but is precisely the same setting. And so the hero rides out of the west in order to civilize the east.

The film shows slavery without the slightest nostalgia, without any of the compromise that dots so much fiction. There is no decent master here or there. There are no 21st century rationalizations shoehorned into the mouths of the 19th century. No states' rights bullshit, no helpless shrugging by sympathetic whites who wish they could do something but just cannot figure a way to change an entrenched evil. The film instead presents slavery as naked brutality that can only be conquered by like violence. It's sentiment right out of Unforgiven, but rendered nearly unrecognizable by virtue of being set in the South instead of the West.

But therein lies the genius. If this wasn't an open wound after a century and a half, this wouldn't be remarkable in the least, because such an objectively minuscule shift in setting would make no difference to the audience's perception. The fact that it does underscores how effective subversion can be, especially because many of those who would otherwise applaud the message that only violence can overthrow violent tyranny, are those same who would argue most strongly that slavery would have died out on its own and that the Civil War was an assault on states' rights.

In the guise of a pulp revenge fantasy, fueled by the usual flair of Tarantino, Django Unchained obliterates this cognitive disconnect. By constructing Django firmly within the mold of the dark western hero, Tarantino argues that to accept the righteousness of any Eastwood hero is to also acknowledge that the violence that crushed southern slavery was justified. Now that's a fucking bingo.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • TimT9999

    This is not a review in any sense. The first three paragraphs are as close as the review gets to talking about the film. There is no mention of the plot and a few light weight critiques of the acting: "...Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx nail their roles..." That's all you can say about your lead actors?

    So what is this "review" about -- grad school meta-theory: "subversion of the typical Western," "peculiarly American meditation on the role of violence," " veneer of civilization," "pulp revenge fantasy... cognitive disconnect." The reviewer lays on the grad school deconstructionism with a trowel hoping to prove that the movie is genius.

    I just wish the movie was as brilliant as Mr Wilson believes. Because then I wouldn't have been bored by long sections of Django. The film is really two movies, an OK take on Sergio Leone during which Foxx learns how to become a bounty hunter and the ending that shifts that genre onto the plantation.

    In theory that shouldn't be a problem. But while it's easy to fake the dynamics of the small Western town, the plantation is a whole different universe, one that Tarantino doesn't grasp.

    It was a system that had been in place for over a century by 1850 with a complex set of behaviors to hide the unspoken fact that one race was being subverted by another. And Quentin gets almost none of it. The plantations come across like the back lot at Universal.The interactions between Jamie and the plantation owners are bizarre. That's why the shift to the plantation is painful to watch. Tarantino can show all the brutality that was there -- he shouldn't spare any punches -- but he has to show it in a way that feels true.

    Tarentino wants to be outrageous and cool and the master of genre. And somehow that keeps him from being truthful to this complex, evil system. The old South isn't Pulp Fiction territory and it's not Sergio Leone in black-face. It has it's own codes that have to be dealt with -- which is why Tarantino ends up looking like a bull in the china shop.

  • Quentin Tarantino is simply one of the´╗┐ most brilliant directors!

  • Felicia

    The shootout scene in the mansion with Tupac backing music alone was worth the ticket price!

  • Buck Forty

    I haven't seen it yet, but I hope it's as good as The Help, and Driving Miss Daisy. Are there any rousing Negro spirituals, or is Les Mis the only musical on offer at the multiplex this holiday season?
    (and yes, I've seen the Singing Hobbits and quite frankly I couldn't understand a word they said)

  • Of course Tarantino is PhD intelligent, but damn, this critique mostly sounded like someone was trying to impress the teacher , maybe get permission to write his/her dissertation on QT.... sigh. We get it, Pajiba writers are real smart, but let's not forget its the smarm, sass and bravado that keeps us plebeians entertained.

  • cinekat

    Loved the trailer. Love this review. Hate the fact I live in Austria and - despite Christoph WALTZ!!! - this won't be out in cinemas here for weeks. Weeks, I said.

  • "The Western has always been a peculiarly American meditation on the role of violence in creating civilization in the midst of a savage world."

    This. 1000 times.

    Anyway, I saw this last night and I can't remember having taken such perverse fun and cathartic pleasure in such a dark hero in a long time. It was less egregiously violent than Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill, in that the violence in those films was historic revision, whereas the violence visited upon the slaves in this movie truly disgusted/sickened me (I suppose because of its probable historical accuracy). There was no mercy, no kindness or redeeming qualities in any of the slavers here, and I kind of appreciated that, for once, slavers weren't sugarcoated or treated as though that even one redeeming quality about them (I'm sure many of them didn't).

    Perfect Christmas movie. I think I might go see this again.

  • BierceAmbrose

    This. Also, nice work by Mr. SLW.

  • Anna von Beav

    Oh, SLW. I still get chills sometimes reading your reviews.

    I loved this movie, overall. I would argue that it is QT's best soundtrack yet. Absolutely does not feel as long as it is, for sure. I would argue only that I felt, at times, like his balance between humor and drama was not as well-blended as it has been in the past, though it certainly did not take away from my enjoyment of the film. Oh, and I was a bit disappointed in the Kerry Washington character being, literally and strictly, a princess for the hero to rescue.

    I did think Jamie Foxx was phenomenal, and was quite disappointed in the lack of a Globe nom for him. I'm hoping the Oscars don't overlook him as well.

    Christoph Waltz needs to be in everything ever, and also move in with me so we can have tea and he can tell me stories of Austria.

    **FYI, the friend I went with found the liberal (SO LIBERAL) use of the N-word somewhat egregious. I would argue that that was the point of it.

  • Late reply but about Kerry's princess in the tower, in this interview http://www.thedailybeast.com/a..., she elaborates on that point a bit. I don't want to paraphrase her point but I agree with her. It could be simply seen as princess in the tower but I can take the small moments where she acts or makes a choice to do something as there being more to her that one could either infer in their imagination or assume that "more" was left on the cutting room floor. Given the time, I can't quite expect her so be asquite a ''rambunctious sort'' like Django but I can make believe that there's a similar streak in her that brought them together to begin with.

  • Anna von Beav

    OH AND ALSO, Samuel Jackson was excellent and that character was VERY well written. I loved that aspect.

  • ,

    Sold.

  • Natallica

    Here it opens on fucking January 31st. Does somebody have a time machine? Or a plane ticket?. Well, the time machine would be more fun

  • lowercase_ryan

    Ugh, and I spent 2 1/2 hours in This Is 40 last night...

  • Groundloop

    I'll see your This Is 40 and raise you The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

    In 48fps 3D.

    I'm glad I had a bottle of The Kraken Black Spiced Rum waiting for me when I got home.

  • BlackRabbit

    Is it any good? The rum, not the movie.

  • Groundloop

    It's pretty great actually. By far my favourite rum. It has a deep and complex blend of flavours, and there's no artificial taste to the additives (vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, maybe some cherry). Also, it smells so good it's almost a shame to drink it.

  • Pookie

    I've long been a fan of Trantino, I'm going to see this today.

  • Dano

    Are we absolutely sure this isn't a remake of "Blazing Saddles"?

  • 'The film shows slavery without the slightest nostalgia, without any of
    the compromise that dots so much fiction. There is no decent master here
    or there. There are no 21st century rationalizations shoehorned into
    the mouths of the 19th century.'
    Fuckin' a.

  • denesteak

    Wow, I really want to watch this now. Great review SLW.

  • Damn guys! I and my man-friend are about to see this in about 30 minutes and y'all got me all excited and thangs! I've not been anticipating this as much as Les Miz because frankly, what little I've seen of Jamie Foxx's performance in the trailers has had me all like "Why this dude???" Y'all better not be lying about him. I want to be wrong.

  • Pure. Cinematic. Excellence. I hadn't had that much fun at the movies since Seven Psychopaths, which - I know - was only a few months ago, but still, I'm just sayin'.

  • Melody Be Watson

    Excellent review, Steven. Simply put, this movie kills any lingering nuggets of pride that white southerners are able to find in films like Gone with the Wind. It literally shoots those sentiments in the face. Like Inglorious Basterds, it's like nothing I've ever seen. It's exiting, funny, heartbreaking, and violent. Tom Savini does the best gore (look for him in a non-speaking cameo, it's Tarantino there are so many smart cameo choices). Of course the music was killer, I literally cheered when I heard The Braying Mule from Two Mules for Sister Sara http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...
    The performances are exaggerated but completely believable. Waltz is amazing, Foxx is stoic and dynamic, Jackson is deliciously evil, and Leo has a Meryl Streep moment where you believe his performance so much that you just KNOW what Candie is thinking. It looks beautiful. With the help of Robert Richardson, Tarantino is mastering the wide shot. But what I loved the most though, is that for the first time a strong black character gets revenge in a wide release/studio backed film and it is both righteous and glorious. I haven't cried that much about someone getting beat since Roots and Glory. It's an instant classic.

  • Dissapointed

    "It literally shoots those sentiments in the face."

    No it does not. A sentiment is a mental construct, it has no face, it cannot be shot in the face. Please stop abusing the language.

  • Melody Be Watson

    I was using personification for effect. Personification: the representation of a thing or abstraction as a person or by the human form

  • bartap

    I think his issue is with the misuse of "literally" in advancement of a figurative idea. Even though that's one of my pet peeves, I would have let this one go.

  • ghisent

    Please stop being such an obnoxiously condescending and pedantic killjoy.

  • Brilliant review, sir.

  • carobiscuit

    No one but these actors in these roles could have sold this in this way. It opens a lot of questions and suffers from many quintessential Tarantino problems, but I did fucking love this movie.

  • e jerry powell

    You're making Tarantino sound Ph.D. intelligent and it's scaring me.

  • psemophile

    He is. He's also a member of that super-exclusive IQ club whose name I cannot recollect because of my super-low IQ.

  • apsutter

    Mensa?

  • psemophile

    Yes. That's the one.

  • e jerry powell

    How is Mayim Bialik not a member?

    I mean, I'm not a two-percenter by any means, but the girl has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

    I'm actually losing I.Q. points from sharing a continent with (insert name of vapid reality star). I can hardly wait for Alzheimer's to set in.

  • Melody Be Watson

    When it comes to film, no one, with the exception of Scorsese, is even in his league. The man is a walking movie encyclopedia.

  • e jerry powell

    I was thinking less about the cineaste and more about the cultural anthropologist.

  • seanx40

    He is. Listen to any interview. He just watched movies and read comic books instead of sitting in classes.

  • Wembley

    Unless he catches a glimpse of your feet-then Lil Quentin takes over the thinking.

  • e jerry powell

    Oy.

  • seanx40

    I actually was going to say something along those lines. I just figured that someone else would do it better. I guess I was correct.

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