In a conversation between pretend slaver Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former mentions his desire to change the name of the subject of their transaction—Eskimo Joe—to something with more panache. This exchange of seemingly little importance is merely a scheme Schultz hatched up with his partner Django (Jamie Foxx) for the purpose of saving the latter’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Yet the word “panache” has stuck with me long after the screening, mainly because of how accurate it describes Quentin Tarantino’s approach to Django Unchained. Admittedly, panache has never been in short supply in his previous films but his latest is designed with the kind of fireworks that is aimed to maximize its appeal as broadly as a 165-minute violent R-rated picture can be.
Riding on the wave of acclaim from his role as the diabolical “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Waltz opens the film as his dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, Dr. Schultz, purchases Django for the purpose of assisting him in locating his next target—the Brittle Brothers. Tarantino’s decision to incorporate Waltz’s German-speaking background into his character is a wise move since the Austrian actor’s enunciation is the most pitch-perfect delivery of the writer/director’s lines since Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Schultz also serves as some sort of moral compass in the film, as he has considered Django more as a partner than as a slave. His unease with racial violence eventually becomes the center of one of the films few introspective moments.
After about an hour of killing white people with relative ease (including a brilliantly comical appearance by Don Johnson), the bounty-hunting duo meet their match when they attempt to set Broomhilda free from sadistic plantation owner/ Francophile Monsieur Candie, played by DiCaprio like you have never seen him before. Comically racist and chillingly violent, DiCaprio’s Candie makes the film’s earlier bad guys look like boy scouts in comparison. Though the word “nigger” is dished out as frequently as bullets are fired in this movie, Candie’s outrageous antics goes far beyond yelling out racial slurs. Lest we forget Tarantino has already garnered plenty of criticisms in the past—most notably from Spike Lee—for using the n-word in his films even though his use of the word is well within the appropriate context. Hence there is really no surprise in his willingness to stick his head out head again, but only to go even further this time. From my experience in the screening room, the responses towards the film’s racially-charged jokes were mostly of nervous laughter at the beginning. But gradually, my fellow viewers seemed to be laughing more comfortably as the film went on. While it is impossible for me to analyze this subtle change of atmosphere in the room, I can’t help but wonder how much desensitization plays a role in our reaction to the film. The use of racial slurs is surely within the context of the story but there is no denying that the film is set to make it entertaining and thus granting its audience a license to enjoy what would be considered as taboo in real life, which is by-and-large what a lot of stand-up comics do. On the other hand, the subtext in the dialogue—a strong suit of Tarantino that always makes his characters more intriguing than the ones of many Hollywood writers—should warrant a more serious discussion. The film’s deftly use of the word “boy” carries a lot of baggage and deep-seated connotation than any use of the shock-oriented n-word.
Despite the facetious courtesy they mutually have displayed, Django and Candie elevate the animosity between the freed slave and the crew of confounded white men (plus an incendiary Samuel L. Jackson) to the boiling point while restraining their utmost disdain for each until Candie’s climatic monologue. That scene and the subsequent gunfight are supposed to be the film’s marquee showpiece. Yet even with DiCaprio’s bloodletting performance and Jamie Foxx’s James Brown/Tupac-induced shootout, there is no sequence in Django Unchained that can live up to the standard-bearing Tarantino set pieces, such as the opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds and Bruce Willis’s dungeon-busting rumpus in Pulp Fiction. Perhaps I am experiencing some form of Basterds hangover—which has its fair share of shortcomings, but expectations inevitably run high for every film by an auteur of Tarantino’s stature. Besides, I wonder how the death of editor in 2010 Sally Menke has impacted his working process. Their collaboration was legendary and the writer/director had never made a film without Menke in the cutting room until now. Her role was instrumental in Tarantino’s trademark unhurried buildup while keeping him on track with running time and the complicated chronology of his movies. Since I have no information on the working relationship between Tarantino and his new editor Fred Raskin, it will be unfair for me to assign blame (or credit) to either one of them for the editing choices in this film. As usual, Tarantino is struggling with the length of his film’s running time—which was rumored to be over three hours before trimming more than fifteen minutes for the final cut. The most obvious glitch is Django’s flashback concerning his past with the Brittle Brothers, which looks uncharacteristically disjointed and haphazard for the director. The conclusion following the aforementioned shootout in the mansion gives the impression that the film is rushing to the finish line. Save for the intense exchange between Jackson’s Stephen and Washington’s Broomhilda (who is criminally underused), the dinner table sequence falls a bit short of the disquieting anticipation of previous Tarantino films.
My reservations notwithstanding, Django Unchained is still a rousing good time and possibly Tarantino’s funniest film to date. I can appreciate the boldness of putting a white-man-killing freed slave in the Antebellum South on the big screen but the crowd-pleasing silliness of this history-rewriting revenge fantasy formula ultimately undermines the potential of its taboo-breaking subject, which is the same complaint I have against Basterds. I imagine Tarantino would probably brush me off by claiming that his film is here to entertain and pay homage to his beloved gun-slinging spaghetti westerns. Even so, I can’t help but lament the fact that a filmmaker with his particular set of skills has left much to be desired.
Django Unchained opens nationwide on December 25, 2012.