I haven't fully written my opinion on a film in awhile because I've grown to feel that film criticism -- or criticism in general -- can be like starting a fight; sometimes critics take their criticisms too seriously (like me, previously unbeknownst to me) and deflate the films they discuss or themselves feel deflated if their view and articulation does not resonate with the world. These days I feel like writing about anything related to cinema can only be viewed as an extension of my own creative mind, so before you read this, know that this will be, maybe, some unusual type of write-up on Quentin Tarantino's latest film - of which I'm sure you are anticipating or have seen and have probably liked because it's a likable film.
Prior to the 1PM advanced screening showing that my wife and I snuck into this afternoon, I had seen the seven films by Quentin Tarantino, most of them more than once (Death Proof being the only exclusion). If you are unfamiliar with his work, the man's style harkens back to and is a hodgepodge of cinema past and present. This means spaghetti Westerns (Sergio Leone, Franco Nero and Sam Peckinpah), the Nouveau Vague (until now, mostly Jean-Luc Godard, but this film reminisces Francois Truffaut more), the Samurai films of Tomu Uchida and Hiroshi Inagaki, and others - even Blaxploitation. That's why when you enter a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, you should try to remind yourself not to feel offended during the movie you're about to watch. Because his mind, his heart, his vision is all deeply founded in cinema. He is rooted in it. So when you hear his overt use of the word nigger it isn't that he is too cavalier about it - it's because filmmakers before him have decided that it was okay - because he relates back to them for clarity - because he grew up watching and loving those movies. That's what I believe is the case, anyway, and if so, it allows his films to be as sprawling and carefree as he is.
In Django Unchained's case, it gets in the way of the film having a real moral or emotional catharsis, but as was Inglourious Basterds this is a sort-of wonky look at a rough patch in history with the intention to send the audience home feeling like they've won, like mankind has won. Here, I feel as if Jamie Foxx's carnation of Django wasn't raw enough, wasn't a slave enough, to get the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up the moment he succeeds. He succeeds often - he is the stallion, the hero climbing the mountain to slay the dragon and free the princess, he is Quentin Tarantino's chosen character for Quentin Tarantino's film, and that means you'll have to like him, and that he'll do all the things Tarantino wants his good guy to do. He'll do everything you expect him to do, and in that, Jamie Foxx's beautiful, reflective eyes and nice charisma gets the film by with the tone I think Quentin Tarantino intended this film to have, and that's a kind of tongue-in-cheek, but violently harsh tone with, of course, victorious undertones.
However, there are moments where you'll wonder where he'll go with it. An hour* into the film, Dr. King Schultz and Django enter Calvin Candie's house -- on a cotton plantation, with a plan to get Django's wife Broomhilda from him -- to see, before them, two Mandingos (they are called) fighting each other to the death. For game. And it is violent. And it is brutal. To see and feel - and what isn't seen is heard, and what isn't heard is still thought and felt. This is how we're introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio's villain.
The writing/justification for his character's wild behavior isn't quite understood. I mean, it is written to be understood - his character hasn't left the plantation all his life, it's a time before any sort of society or real civilization, at least to him. He is very insecure, very insecure, and that is an issue too. Is this because the times made him that way -- that his situation was simply as ruinous for his mind as the time was for his slaves'? If so, Quentin Tarantino spares no expense allowing us to feel sorry for his antagonist - or anyone like him. It's very black and white and right here Tarantino is going black, baby - even Dr. King Schultz's charisma is almost identical to that of Col. Hans Landa's, but because the character sides (even if incidentally) with the slaves (ie. Django) his actions, the same ones he would take to the Jews in Inglourious Basterds, are considered triumphant. It's moralistically slippery because its only stance is a superficial one, a judgmental one, and therein lies the film's only major problem - its lack of humanity.
Storytelling and dialogue have always been Tarantino's strong suit. While his tale of vengeance is fully realized, narratively, I feel the cleverness in Tarantino's verbosity wavering - at least in these historical pieces. I feel he's trapping himself in the times, using language that might be relevant, might be clever, might even be funny, but it's mostly flowery and possesses not an idea, but a point - a point his character wants to make, and none of them really have anything to say except to each other, and that just leads to more plot. That's okay - that makes a movie pass by really fast if it has panache, and this does, Tarantino's films always will - but it does lack that soul quality. (Maybe if someone more deeply rooted themselves in the lead role the film would have possessed more humanity - well it would have - but it would have just skated over the underlying scriptural issue.)The best actors in the film do bring a lot of themselves into their roles and that helps bring to life the dark, yet colorful cast of characters: Christoph Waltz is wonderfully composed and precise as the sharp-shooting Dr. King Schultz, Leonardo DiCaprio (whose performance is ever growing on me) is wild and triumphant, but also edgier than I've ever seen as Calvin Candie, and Samuel L. Jackson is perhaps the most interesting as Stephen, who appears to be - or at least I interpreted him as - the sadistic male version of Hattie McDaniel's mammie from Gone With The Wind; when he cries at the end, you will laugh and be mind-blown. These are three great performances.
After the film, I noticed a black couple next to me standing with each other, not talking to each other and waiting for the next person to speak. I ascertained that they weren't or hadn't been in a romantic relationship long, if at all, but they were together. And then one of them said to the other "So how did you like that?" in an awkward way, as if uncomfortable by what the woman might say about the film. "Well the slavery stuff... it wasn't as hard for me to sit through as I thought it was going to be", and that's the thing. The first thing people talk about isn't how satisfying it is, but how uncomfortable it maybe made them feel.
I just say they're black because they were and the man I saw was obviously effected by the film, but the couple could have been white and the point about its Earthly harshness still made - and while the film is satisfying, it isn't REALLY satisfying and that's what it would have had to have been in order for it to be truly successful, being the film it is with Tarantino taking the route he did. As I said before, I think Quentin Tarantino is absolved from any vilification, morally or otherwise. I think his intentions are as pure as cinema, but this is a daunting film, and while you can play with any subject matter to entertaining effect, it's clear to me that with stories like this one, ones where all of its characters are living some sort of hell, you have to have humanity; you have to try and understand people. Sometimes he's rather play a Rick Ross song to convey his protagonist's charged blood-lust instead of his face - and that's okay. (It's actually this song for which Jamie Foxx supplied the beat - so in a way, that is him. By some extension, it is him.)
So while Django Unchained is entertaining and has a lot of things that people who go to the cinema to see moving pictures and hope to be inspired by some art will bask in and enjoy, ultimately it's nothing to think about beyond the closing credits, save for some of the performances and technical specs.
* The first hour is one in which Django and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) get to know each other after the former is bought by the latter in the film's opening scene. You will notice that the slave walking montage that plays with the opening credits features a lot of panoramic shots, far-zooms, cinematic playfulness and beauty. This will be featured a lot in the film to fine effect. Not quite how Robert Altman handled the lens, but still not bad.
Personal Nominations and Wins for Django Unchained
Best Supporting Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio
Best Supporting Actor - Samuel L. Jackson
Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz
Another solid 7/10. I hope that review worked for you, and if you have any questions I will answer.