The main performances, while extremely varied, are tremendous across the board. Waltz is as twinkling and delightful as he was in Inglourious Basterds, taking an almost sensual pleasure in his dialogue. Jamie Foxx necessarily has to play things much closer to the vest. As a slave living and travelling in unfriendly territory, Django can't allow any of his real emotions to come to the surface. Still, Foxx does an excellent job of showing Django's constant fear and growing sense of self. Meanwhile, DiCaprio seems to be having fun playing someone who isn't suffering from some sort of inner torment for the first time in years. (That doesn't mean he doesn't get angry - at one point, he slams his hand down on a table so hard his hand starts bleeding.)
|He also gets to hold a jaunty coconut.|
Django Unchained almost seems like it could be a good two-parter, since the two halves of the film - pre- and post-Candie - are so tonally different. The first half is funnier and more playful, and since Christoph Waltz dominates that half it makes sense. The second half moves a lot slower and is generally darker, as Waltz cedes the ground to darker characters like Candie and Stephen. Instead of hilariously inept Klansmen bumbling around, we get Francophile dandies explaining the finer points of phrenology. The second half is also much more violent, starting with the gruesome Mandingo fight and building to an epic Grand Guignol slaughterfest. I don't usually do this in graphic movies, but I found myself covering my eyes at several scenes.
As always, Tarantino's desire to tell a story is in fierce competition with his obsession with reminding his audience of the awesomeness of cinema. So, the powerful narrative gets interrupted and distracted from by masturbatory flourishes and ostentatious casting choices. One of the funnier and more ridiculous scenes involves a proto-KKK gang with some problems with their badly constructed hoods. On its own, the scene already distracts from the story we care about, but it becomes even more distracting when Jonah Hill pulls off his hood. We're no longer watching an unexpectedly funny interaction between characters, but a funny scene with Jonah Hill. His presence is totally unnecessary. On a similar vein, the less said about Tarantino's offensively unnecessary cameo as an Australian slave trader (??), the better. He should feel really shitty for bringing his own movie to a screeching halt like that.
But the story he's telling is so interesting, and so necessarily complex, that even with the film's numerous Tarantino-related problems it's still terrific. Naturally, the most compelling and complicated aspect was the way racism affected each character. Stephen has clearly internalized his society's racism to a severe degree, to the point that he is legitimately outraged at Django sleeping in a bed meant for white guests, and hated to see a free black man anyway. The courtly Big Daddy may call his slaves "sugar," but he still a) keeps slaves, b) insists that while Django isn't a slave, he shouldn't be treated like a white man (he finally settles on treating Django like white trash), and c) was apparently a founding member of the KKK. Unlike in Gone with the Wind, there is no such thing as a benevolent slaveowner.
|Not even ones who are Colonel Sanders impersonators.|
But Django himself has clearly internalized slavery's racial hierarchy as well. He tells Dr. Schultz that his wife is too pretty (and, he leaves out, light-skinned) to be a field slave. Meanwhile, Dr. Schultz clearly thinks of himself as a racially tolerant man, but his objection to slavery seems to be largely intellectual. He refers to slavery offhandedly as "this slavery malarkey," and appears genuinely baffled at the resentment engendered when he lets Django ride a horse or drink beer in a saloon. When Django first tells Schultz about his wife, he responds "I didn't know slaves believed in marriage," as though it was a personal choice on the slaves' part rather than a right denied them by their status as slaves. His position doesn't really change until he meets Candie and gets introduced to Mandingo fighting. It seems that seeing the real horrors of slavery up close - seeing a slave torn apart by dogs because Candie can't use him anymore, for instance - makes him realize that slavery isn't just a silly or misguided idea, but is truly evil.
I also have a problem with Kerry Washington's role as Broomhilda. As usual with Tarantino films that aren't starring badass women (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill), Broomhilda is tragically underwritten. She fills a pretty traditional role, the beautiful damsel in distress whose distress is that much more affecting because she's beautiful. On the other hand, it's incredibly rare to see a black woman in the beautiful damsel in distress role. I know it's weird to say, but black women are rarely allowed to be the decorative subject of a chivalrous quest. Even in the realm of the Disney princesses, the white princesses are whisked away by their princes charming while the colored princesses learn the value of hard work. Having a black man go through hell for an angelic black woman sure does diversify our on-screen representation.
Django Unchained is simultaneously awkward and elegant, superficial and complicated, disturbing and entertaining. If nothing else, I'm glad that Tarantino hasn't lost his intense ambition to make something challenging and important.
*The myth of Mandingo fighting persists because it's such a vivid distillation of what racism and slavery do to black men. It reduces them to nothing more than bodies, sets them in competition with each other, and rewards them with a substantially diminished life and sometimes a paltry recognition. The Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained illustrates all of that with breathtaking brutality and a fair bit of elegance.