I saw Django Unchained last night, and I’m not sure what to make of it. If someone were to ask me “What is the movie about?” I’d say it’s a story about a man going to great lengths to rescue the love of his life, but to be honest I wasn’t really feeling it. I don’t know if it’s because we don’t see Jamie Foxx (Django) and Kerry Washington (Hildy) interact much on screen or if the chemistry just wasn’t there, but I came away from the movie believing that Django liked kicking butt, period. Maybe it’s just me.
On the plus side, the movie is superbly acted by the entire cast, which includes (in addition to Foxx and Washington) Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), and Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen). The storyline is clear and lacks convolution (a real plus in my book), the script is clever and quite funny, and the characters are interesting and evoke empathy—especially Django and Dr. Schultz.
But the film is violent and disturbing. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino proved that he is the king of the blood spurt—and depictions of exploding heads seem to delight him in particular. Django contained many of those. I closed my eyes (and once even had to plug my ears) during several scenes, and I still saw and heard plenty. And it’s not just the bad guys getting blown to bits. It’s slaves being whipped and torn apart by dogs and forced to participate in hand-to-hand, bone-crunching combat. It’s gruesome, and there’s nothing remotely entertaining about it.
And then there’s the heavy, heavy use of the n-word, which I swear Tarantino just likes. Okay, he gets some leeway for a story set in the South a couple of years before the Civil War, but don’t think I’ve forgotten that scene in Pulp Fiction where Jimmie (played by Tarantino), tells Samuel Jackson’s character that he’s not in the business of storing dead n’s. While Tarantino finds ways to use the n-word in unexpected, comical, and irreverent ways, I can’t help wondering if the joke’s really on us.
Ultimately, the movie is a study in too-heavy contrasts, and when it’s over, I don’t know what to feel. Celebration seems wrong. We’ve seen too much carnage, and slavery was an evil institution that degraded slaves and masters. The villainous characters are disgusting, but they’ve been defiled by their way of life—we know it even if they don’t. I just couldn’t find satisfaction in their demise. Sure, parts of the movie were laugh-out-loud funny—Tarantino is a funny guy. But then are those moments that make you cringe, and since it’s clear that the movie is not meant to be a serious treatise of slavery, what are we supposed to do with those? I’m not sure a filmmaker can have it all ways.
When the movie ends, and (spoiler alert) we see Django get his girl, a few people clapped, but when no one else joined in they quickly quieted. It’s not that we’re unhappy for Django, it’s just that the entire situation is a jacked-up mess—and that’s no reason to celebrate.