Django Unchained Review
To call Quentin Tarantino’s films messy is a sky-blue, water-wet sort of thing. It no longer counts as a problem; it’s where the man lives. His films digress and sprawl, they slow down, they explode back to life, they detour into comedy or extreme violence, they court scorn and push boundaries. They pack in details, sometimes extraneous, go-nowhere details, because who knows when he’ll ever get the chance to make another film. He buttonholes you, he’s gotta get everything out, it’s urgent for him. Cinema is waiting to be put in a blender and served up in the biggest glass he can find. And the result is one splattery pop pleasure after another.
Django Unchained is the second in a who-knows-how-many-there’ll-be series of revisionist revenge projects from Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds saw the filmmaker imagining a much more satisfyingly fiery resolution to World War II than the one where Hitler just quit. And in the process Tarantino pushed his own agenda, the one where he gets to re-package film history to align it more satisfyingly with his own frenziedly excited fandom and “termite art” scholarship.
Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in pre-Civil War America, has one thing on his mind, reuniting with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) after the brutal indignities of slavery tear them apart. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, selects Django to be his assistant in “kill[ing] people and sell[ing] their corpses for cash” in exchange for his freedom. To explain the convoluted plot that takes up the remaining two and a half hours would take about as long, so just know that Django displays an unusual gift for firing guns at his chosen targets, a capacity for never breaking character when it’s time to trick unsuspecting bounty marks and a thirst for bloody personal revenge that will leave you cheering his approach to ending the shameful institution of slavery, one redneck and plantation at a time.
It’s exactly what you expect from Tarantino, so if this movie finds itself challenged in any way, it’s in being expected. It’s not only the next provocation in a career devoted to rubbing everything the wrong way, it’s also thematically similar to Inglourious Basterds. That film had the privilege of being first in line, prepping audiences for the kind of factual disregard that felt so surprising and thrilling as the director set fire to events as every history class knew them. Django is no less exciting to witness, it’s just that you’ve already been prepped for outlandishness.
Best of all, Tarantino isn’t just remixing. He shoots holes in received wisdom. When he grinds up the grindhouse and serves it up fresh again its with an infusion of cultural critique, about history’s winners and losers and heroes and villains, about narratives of victimhood and acceptable forms of brutality, about love and hate and violence how it shapes the way we see the world and how we see movies.
I trust this phase, this series, whatever it winds up being. Over the past two decades, this director has not yet succumbed to diminishing returns. He’s too smart and full of his own maniacal devotion to his art to give audiences anything less than the kind of film he, himself, would want to watch. And by sneaking in through the side door he gets us every time.