Movies I Have Seen: Django Unchained

Have you ever gotten to the end of a three hour movie, and said “Whoa, it’s over already?” That’s the experience I had last night when I finished watching the latest film by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. It’s a three hour film that feels like it’s half an hour long. I could easily have sat there another two hours.

Before I continue, it’s important to know some of the history of the film. Back in 1966, there was a film called Django, starring Franco Nero. It was instantly known as one of the most violent films ever made. It’s a spaghetti Western, but it’s also a pure revenge flick. Did you know that this film was so influential, it spawned 30 unofficial sequels? Did you also know that one official sequel was made…in 1987, almost 20 years after the original, called Django II: Il Grande Ritorno? It’s that kind of film.

I hesitate to say that this film is required viewing, but it definitely helps. However, it’s not really fair to say, “go watch this forty-five year old film”, now is it? So, let me quickly sum up the film, as I do think it’s important.

The Original Django

Django is a drifter who drags around a coffin. He rescues a young woman, Maria, from being murdered by bandits led by Major Jackson, a man on whom Django is seeking revenge for the murder of his wife.

After murdering a bunch of Jackson’s dudes, Django makes a deal with a Mexican bandit general, Hugo Rodriguez, who is in conflict with Jackson, and the two steal a large quantity of gold from the Mexican Army. Rodriguez betrays them, María is shot and Django’s hands are crushed. Rodriguez and his men are murdered by Jackson and the Mexican Army when the bandits return to Mexico.

The movie ends with Django by killing Jackson and his five surviving men by pressing the trigger against a cross, on the grave of a female acquaintance of Django earlier killed by Jackson, and repeatedly dropping the hammer.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post…

So there you go. That’s the kind of film that Django is, and it highly informs Django Unchained. I mean, is it a direct sequel or anything like that? No, not at all, but knowing the lineage of a film is always interesting and helpful to me, anyway. Do I think it really matters in viewing? No, but I do think you need to know what you are walking into.

What are you walking into? You are walking into a revenge Western, though you might as well call it a Southern, like Tarantino wants.

I might as well get the negative out of the way. The only thing that possibly detracts from the film, and I am really inclined to brush it aside as a minor thing, is the editing. This is the first film that Tarantino has done without his standard editor, Sally Menke. I will pause here to say that cinema lost a legend when Sally Menke passed in 2010, and her touch is missed. Anyway, it’s not as if the editing is bad, it’s very good, but it lacks a bit of the technical precision that I closely associate with Tarantino.

You will hear a lot about the language, graphic violence, and moral repugnance. I do not expect this to be a film that is easily added to our popular conversations.

The language is very much what you would expect from the pre-Civil War South in America. The main settings of the film are Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The violence you see here is a brutal representation of this. Some of this involves the use of animals. However, it would be a disservice to say that this is done for shock or without purpose. It is this very brutal scene that is a moral catalyst for a major character later in the film.

This is to say that nothing in the film is without purpose. The wonderful dialogue, quick, witty, and everything else you would expect from Tarantino, the dark humor of the wicked, the ultraviolence, and the uneasy incompetence of the powerful. Everything here is with express intent. Yes, even the ending of the film. The mimicking of Gene Autry is absolutely, positively on purpose. This film is the subversion of the myth and a creation of a new one. It’s goddamn amazing work.

The intangibles are all well and good, but not everyone watches a film for the nuance of cinema, or the levels of cinema within cinema that Tarantino is so well known for, but really I feel belies the rest of the fantastic nature of his work. This film has enough on the surface to please most people. The performances turned in by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson are all incredible. Jackson in particular is utterly amazing here. It’s a twist on several tropes simultaneously, and it is handled so deftly and authentically that it will slip right past you if you aren’t careful.

Waltz is a twist and subversion all his own as a German dentist-cum-bounty-hunter who offers Django a new life, a new craft, and his freedom. He is the magical elderly figure, mentor, and father all in one. He carries humor, violence, bloodlust, love, and morality in a way that is simple fantastic.

The film is jam-packed with cameos, but never once in a distracting way. Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, in a pretty solid cameo scene, and Tarantino himself, as normal, but in a way that is great. The supporting cast doesn’t get a lot of work, but the work they do get is very, very good. Ned Bellamy, Walter Goggins, Laura Cayouette, James Remar, M.C. Gainey, and many others.

Now, it does stand to mention that this film is incredibly male centric. Kerry Washington does her job admirably enough, but her job is to be the princess in the castle. The film quite astutely points out, without any sort of subtlety that this is a telling of the tale of Siegfried and Broomhilda, Sigurd for the more Danish of you. As such, it’s everything you would expect from such a fantasy epic. The hero sees visions of the princess, his lost love, everywhere, and he is inexorable in his quest.

The visuals in the film? Holy shit, forget about it. It’s a goddamn visual masterpiece. The flashback portions are done in a distinct and pleasing style, with the current portions carrying a brilliant color and framing. The violence is visceral, explosive, gory, and fantastic. The use of bodies, blood, and spatter is intentional, amazing, and over the top while still remaining entirely within the scene. It might be off-putting for many people, but never once did I feel it was excessive. It was surprising, jarring, shocking, and riveting, but never excessive.

Some of the finer details might feel comical, ridiculous, or even asinine to many people. The zoom-cuts, the text time passes, the names of the people and places, Calvin Candie, Candyland, the Brittle Brothers, the mob scenes, and the escape scenes. However, these are so iconic, so necessary, and such a dual touch of tropes and subversion, that it’s hard to imagine the film without them.

If it’s not clear, I feel that this film is one of Tarantino’s best works to date. I waffle between four and five smiley faces as a rating, and might feel either way given the day right now. I probably need to see it a few more times to lock it down either way, but it’s three hours of my time I would give up again and a gain.

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