Django Unchained

Wishes are horses
Quentin Tarantino
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel Jackson
The Setup: 
Ex-slave becomes bounty hunter, rescues wife from plantation.

So it's the new Tarantino movie, continuing in the revisionist history revenge vein he struck last time, with Inglorious Basterds (which I did not see), and it has generated the typical amount of discussion and controversy enough that made me want to see it, despite my vow to never again see any Tarantino films. Christoph Waltz's handsome beard was a big factor in my decision, and, I am happy to say, more than fulfills its promise.

So it's Texas in 1858, and two guys marching a bunch of slaves on chains are met by Waltz as Dr. King Schutlz (anyone else notice that the first part of his name is "Dr. King?") who is looking for a particular slave who will recognize three criminals he is looking for. The guys aren't amenable to business, so he kills them, frees the slaves, and buys Django, played by Jaime Foxx. He explains that he is a bounty hunter, making money by killing wanted criminals and collecting the rewards, which he demonstrates by killing a wanted man in town. He tells Django that they will go to a certain plantation, where they will both assume roles in order to gain entry. It's a bit important thematically, when we start discussing how this film is mostly about other films, that they both assume roles and discuss the importance of staying within role.

At the next plantation, run by Don Johnson as a Colonel Sanders type, there is a lot of discussion about how Django is a free man, and not subject to the same rules as the slaves around him. We have been seeing, in flashbacks and in the slaves they encounter, some of the horrors of slavery, such as Django being branded on his face, his whip-scarred back, and slaves in town standing around in iron collars with spikes. Django quickly finds the three men they're looking for, and in the film's first big revenge sequence, he kills them, whipping one in front of the other slaves, who watch with amazed delight. It's satisfying pulp. But one is surprised that the object of their quest is over so quickly, since one might have expected it to be the main driver of the whole movie.

But it serves as an important thematic change, because after the mission is accomplished, Django is no longer Schultz's slave, he is free. Django tells Schultz of his wife, Broomhilda, whom he was separated from and is kept on some plantation. Broomhilda von SHAFT, by the way, which I don't think was unintentional. Schultz strikes him a bargain to spend the winter becoming a bounty hunter, then in the spring they will go rescue his wife. In here there is a comic scene with the KKK bickering about not being able to see through their hoods, but not wanting to offend the guy whose wife cut them all for them.

Soon they have located Broomhilda on the plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. They pose as buyers of Mandingo fighters, black men forced to fight to the death for whites' amusement and profit by betting. There is a notably horrifying scene in which they come across some Mandingo traders who will lead them to Candie. The guys have a fighter who is exhausted, and everyone watches as he is ripped apart by dogs. Soon the guys meet Candie, in the company of Franco Nero, star of the pulp Western Django, which largely inspired this film. Here we have another horrifying scene as one man must fight the other to the death for the amusement of the white men.

They come to Candie's plantation, where they find Broomhilda. This whole last half of the movie has a kind of "undercover operation" intrigue. In here we introduce Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, house slave who has become cruel and vicious to his fellow slaves and wholly devoted to Candie. He can see that Django and Broomhilda know each other, and warns Candie, who suddenly turns vicious and terrifying.

We're going to discuss the ending now, so if you don't want to know, skip past the spoilers. There is a confrontation, and Schultz kills Candie. Not totally in Schultz's til-then shrewd character, as they could have easily taken their things (including Broomhilda) and left at that point. But it is completely breaking character for Schultz, up til now extremely savvy when it comes to survival, to stand making a quip while a guy with a double-barrel shotgun is nearby, allowing himself to get shot and killed. There's a shootout, and Django is captured. Now Candie is dead, so a lot of interest deflates after this, and no one is mourning Schultz much, which is extremely alienating after we have come to like him so much, and soon Django is being sent away to die, which is precisely the point where the movie becomes TOO LONG.

Eventually Django returns, says a perfunctory "thanks" to Schultz's corpse, and rescues Broomhilda in a fiery shootout. Turncoat slave Stephen ends up being the target of his climactic rage, and by implication, the greatest villain of the movie. Django and Broomhilda live happily ever after.

Before we leave the spoilers, I have to say that the way the film ultimately treats Schultz is a big alienator. I understand that it's Django's film and for thematic reasons he needs to step out on his own (although they could both have survived... but that would bend the theme of a black man getting revenge on his own). But he was an important character not just for the audience, but for Django, who would still be chained in slavery without him, and who went to all this trouble for Django to rescue his wife with little benefit to himself, so to kill him off and for Django to barely seem to notice, let alone show absolutely no remorse (just a perfunctory "thanks") is really alienating, and feels like a betrayal. Not to mention that Schultz has been shown to be much too sharp to let something like that happen to him... and it just feels like it happened for thematic reasons that distort the story.

So as a movie, it's quite entertaining and fun. It's well-written, funny, energetic, has good characters with compelling arcs and motivations, good performances, and is directed with panache. Many of the B-movie tropes appropriated help give the movie energy and momentum, like the big slow-motion and musical flourish that accompanies Django and Schultz entering Candie's plantation, and things like that help express the importance of different parts of the film, and give it drama in a way that straightforward movies seem to be a little afraid of lately. You can't deny that Tarantino knows how to create a compelling shot and sell his story through persuasive visual storytelling. It may ultimately go on too long, and alienate some with the way it dispatches an aforementioned character, but overall it's extremely solid, well-made entertainment.

So, for the issues it raises? It brings up a lot of things, and I'm not so sure it has answers for them as much as it has "Yeah, but..."s in place to deflect them. The historical issues here are serious and not suitable for a movie... Yeah, but this movie is really a comment on other movies. Slavery is a serious tragedy, not a goofy revenge fantasy... Yeah, but why is it okay to have certain fantasies, like whites having Western adventures while casually killing off Native Americans and blacks, but not okay to casually kill off whites? Numerous people suffered through slavery and it's inaccurate to portray that one or more of them was able to turn the tables and get revenge... Yeah, but that's why it's satisfying to watch and imagine if that could have happened.

I don't necessarily have answers. The issues brought up seem valid, and I think it's of more value just to raise them than necessarily have them answered. Another issue this film brought up is how much of something you SHOULD see, how much of something is appropriate to show. I have a friend at work, who doesn't see many violent movies, see this and have an unforeseen moral reaction that this level of violence SHOULD NOT be shown. By contrast, I saw this movie and was actually surprised at the unusual discretion Tarantino showed, keeping shots of killing at medium-distance or further, and the man being torn apart by dogs to blurry shots of his head and limbs, without showing actual gore. I had arguments with my friends over the length and intensity of shots in Amour, about an elderly woman's decline, and whether I should have to look at them. So that's another whole area of inquiry that this film brings up without providing definitive answers, how much of something we should be "forced" to watch, and bringing up that issue is okay in my book.

So while its a quite good, entertaining movie, and it brings up a lot of interesting questions, and is quite worth seeing and thinking about, I still stop short of including it as one of the best films of the year. And personally, I'd like to see Tarantino do something different now. He's kind of made his point about pulpy movies having value, right? I wonder how he'd be at making a straightforward, sincere film without hiding behind multiple layers of parody and irony. That's something I'd be interested in seeing.

Should you watch it: 

Pretty much.