Django Unchained (2012)
May 21, 2024 10:27 AM - Subscribe

With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained mixes elements of Western and Blaxploitation genres, with his typical mix of comedy, satire, and ultraviolence.

Critical reception was largely positive, earning Rotten Tomatoes "Certified Fresh" badge, with 87% of critics offering a positive review. Some excerpts:

Lisa Kennedy, Denver post:
Much like “Inglourious Basterds,” this film offers viewers a space to work through some serious pay-back fantasies. Granted, most of them are more male than female. Though Kerry Washington brings to Broomhilda more depth and edge than your average damsel.
Roger Ebert:
What Tarantino has is an appreciation for gut-level exploitation film appeal, combined with an artist's desire to transform that gut element with something higher, better, more daring. His films challenge taboos in our society in the most direct possible way, and at the same time add an element of parody or satire.
However, Tarantino's approach to the subject was not universally well received -- Spike Lee has long been against Tarantino's scripts repeatedly using the n-word, and declared he would not see the film.

Dwight Brown, National Newspapers Publishers Association, opines:
Even if you got your psych degree on eBay, you can probably figure out that the chatty, loquacious self-absorbed, patronizing Shultz is Tarantino’s alter ego. He doles out information in condescending platitudes like Dr. Phil with an acute case of noblesse oblige. The trailers, posters and press photos hype Django, but it feels like most of the attention and dialogue goes to Schultz for the first two thirds of the movie. At the end of the film Django charts his own destiny, but it’s too little, too late-especially considering the film’s original premise.
Notable Quote

Dr. King Schultz: How much would you say, Django?
Django: ...12,000 dollars.
Calvin Candie: Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, now you have my attention.

posted by pwnguin (8 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I always feel like Django is two movies and the split point is when Schultz gets killed by Candie. The first part is a great Western full of mood and imagery. After Schultz's death, it becomes a grindhouse revenge flick. I definitely prefer the Western.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:35 AM on May 21 [6 favorites]

After Schultz's death, it becomes a grindhouse revenge flick. I definitely prefer the Western.

Yes, the film is way to long for the script to support the weight. Up to the death of Candie the film works and the second half feels like an afterthought or a mid-credit sequence that goes on way too long.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:14 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

Tarantino has described there being two forms of violence (basically: bad violence done by bad people, and good violence done by good people) but the film seems to have three kinds of violence: traumatic, revenge, and dramatic.

Traumatic violence I largely associate with slavers. Whipping, branding, being fed to dogs, locked in an oven to sunbake, mandingo fights. It's singular and personal. Designed to humiliate. You feel sick to your stomach watching it. Ebert's review mentions the wrestling fight as a potential walk-out moment.

Revenge violence is cartoonish. Schultz's first shot of the film explodes a head. QT's minor role involves dying in a literal explosion. Django shoots the lady of the Candyland plantation so hard she flies into the next room. The plantation manor is covered in blood by the final scene. People either die instantly, or must suffer through multiple repeated torturous wounds. And the more people dead the better. I expect QT thinks it's funny and cathartic, but I'm not so sure.

Dramatic violence is associated with Schultz's own theatrics. He carries a derringer in his sleeve but it seems to be armed with the only non-explosive bullets in the film. These bullet wounds kill slowly enough for a person to recognize their own death and briefly react. Throughout the film Schultz is constantly referring to theater; his encounter in Daughterty is a small play in three acts: transgression, conflict, and reversal. He and Django discuss at length that as bounty hunters, they must be actors to get close to their quarry. And the whole Hildebrun story is the famous German play, which is a microcosm of the film. And as best I can tell, he died because he couldn't resist the theater of slaying Candie.

The first two seem to fit into the Tarantino dichotomy, but Schultz is some sort of neutral player. He could take people in alive but never does, and instead appears to engineer ways to legally kill people, and ideally in front of as big an audience as possible. I half expected him to be so unconcerned with the morality of his killing that he was turning in the wrong corpses for bounties, but that plot point was instead given to Django, a call back to his first bounty. And that hilltop sniping scene illustrates that neither Schultz nor Tarantino believe in second chances or reform. Or even a day in court. They shoot a farmer dead in front of his son, because he was and always will be the man on the wanted poster.

It seems reasonable that Schultz is not only a stand-in for every white dude with a savior complex, but also Tarantino specifically.
posted by pwnguin at 11:45 AM on May 21 [5 favorites]

I always feel like Django is two movies and the split point is when Schultz gets killed by Candie.

It's more like a trilogy. Or perhaps three acts, cleverly disguised.

The opening act establishes Schultz and Django as bounty hunters, killing for money. It also contains a training montage, which you may be tricked into viewing as the second act and Django's character development. I know I was.

However, the second act only really begins when the stakes are raised to freeing Django's wife. The word MISSISIPPI scrolls across in huge letters, letting us know a huge change has occurred. I went in expecting this to be the final act, and that expectation is subverted chaotically at the very end.

It's only when Schultz dies and Django surrenders do we realize there's another act coming. Candie is dead but the Stephen, the villain behind the villain, lives. This is the act where Django's training becomes useful. He uses that wanted poster he learned to read and kept as a good luck charm, quickshoots the world's dumbest miners, and rescues his damsel. And yea, it's an absurd absolute tone shift, as Django deals mostly in one-liners, in contrast to Schultz's endless banter. And unfortunately, there's not a lot of plot left here, just an hour's worth of trading bullets with random henchmen and a very upset Samuel L Jackson, punctuated with an explosion. Easily the weakest act.
posted by pwnguin at 12:10 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

I like most of Tarantino's work, and enjoyed Django when I saw it with my oldest son on opening weekend. But it still rankles me that Tarantino has Django's wife named Broomhilda. I can potentially accept a slave being named Brunhilde by a Germanic owner, but NOT being named after a comic strip that started in 1970. Tarantino may not be able to pronounce it correctly, but someone, somewhere should have caught this. Not that the movie goes for a lot of historical accuracy. it could be Tarantino doing a pop culture reference like the "mandingo" wrestling.
posted by jkosmicki at 12:58 PM on May 21

And yea, it's an absurd absolute tone shift, as Django deals mostly in one-liners, in contrast to Schultz's endless banter. And unfortunately, there's not a lot of plot left here, just an hour's worth of trading bullets with random henchmen and a very upset Samuel L Jackson, punctuated with an explosion. Easily the weakest act.

My Grand Unified Theory of Tarantino is that all of his movies are, on some level, about people's formation of identity through culture: them deciding to be things based on what culture's idea of those things are, and the disparity between their real selves and their "pop" selves. (In 2023, I watched an absolute glut of Jean-Luc Godard movies, and seeing how obsessed Godard was with that same theme absolutely locked in my convictions that Tarantino's extremely intentional on this front.)

It feels like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood form a sort of trilogy on this front: they're various iconic eras of American history reinterpreted through this particular lens. The subject of all three movies is how villains see themselves, mixed with an ambiguous rendering of more "heroic" characters as fairly brutal in their own rights. (But ultimately on the right side of history—or at least the winning side of history, and therefore free to interpret themselves as heroic.)

My interpretation of Django when I saw it in theaters was that it consisted of a series of moments puncturing the myth of the South as a dignified, majestic place. It's not just that it depicts the plantation-era South as evil, since a lot of films have done that. Its aim seems to be depicting the South as undignified, buffonish, and utterly unworthy of the myths and fables modern Confederate sympathizers have tried to spin about its being a more glorious era.

Its lampooning of the KKK is the most obvious moment there—the time-shifting that shows us the KKK once as the nightmare we remember it as, then again as a bunch of dipshits who can barely see what they're doing, is a classic Tarantino instance of giving us the myth and then shattering it. (It's a direct parallel, imo, to the Nazi captain who's prepared to die with dignity, then instead gets bashed to death by a baseball bat as his heroic death music abruptly shuts off.) That moment gets mirrored and foiled by the way that Schultz murders Candie: it gives us the moment where the scrappy underdogs make a deal with the devil, cowed by Candie's cunning and might, and then Schultz goes "no, fuck that," and blows everything to hell. At which point, you've got the grindhouse third act, which I agree with you is the most cartoonish, but would argue plays a really interesting role in the movie's structure as a whole.

On the one hand, it centers Stephen Warren, not Candie, as the Big Bad of the movie. The trade that Warren makes in life is obvious on one level: he enforces racist oppression against his own people in exchange for personal gain. On a deeper level, though, Warren is defined by belief: either belief that this system of oppression and gain is just, or belief that it would be futile to hope for anything better. He's one vision of America, really. And it doesn't matter whether that vision is that might makes right or that better things can't happen, because the end result is the same. He's a direct foil to Schultz, the foreigner who believes in liberty and will martyr himself for that cause.

On the other hand, it turns Candie's plantation from a place of overwhelming evil—a place of genuine hopelessness, where oppression is backed by such power that you can understand Stephen's choice to submit to it—into a literal shooting gallery. The first two-thirds of the movie emphasize the horrific magnitude of Candyland as an institution, making it out to be utterly impregnable as both a fortress and a concept... and the last third pulls the rug out from under that and goes, "Yeah, no, fuck that."

I saw this movie in theaters twice—once with a primarily Black audience and once with a mostly-white audience—and the moment that got the single biggest laugh is Django blowing Candie's sister away. I think that, on some level, the entire movie is building up to that moment, in the same way that Basterds builds Landa up as this dignified, brilliant man primarily to drive home his ultimate humiliation and debasement in the final scene. And the very twisted joke about Django shooting her is that Tarantino shoots her to look like... well, a victim. She's Birth of a Nation's image of white Southern women as helpless innocents that are going to be raped and murdered by beastly Black men. She poses no threat. She's unarmed. The fact that she gets shot so callously, and that the film literally yoinks her off-screen like there's a cane around her waist, should feel awful, not funny.

But Tarantino's also shown the way she enjoys watching Black men rip each other apart. The way her response to Schultz killing Candie is to demand that Django be castrated—because, of course, the South's attitude towards Black people wasn't just racist but deeply sexist, reducing Black individuals to animalistic caricatures of masculinity and femininity. That's contrasted with the weirdly incestuous vibe between Lara and Calvin, whose "aristocracy" quietly mirrors the aristocratic tendency towards in-breeding. And I'd argue that Lara gives off some real "in-bred" vibes too: she's sickly, effete, practically bloodless. (Tarantino avoids portraying the Candies as especially feminized, which is smart, because that would implicitly enforce the idea that Django's virtue is masculine strength—and that, in turn, would wind up unintentionally reinforcing that racist image of Black men.)

Lara's a victim only because she's inseparable from the plantation that made faux-royalty out of her. She's a victim only because, in the third act, the plantation is razed to the fucking ground, all of its glamor and might reduced to cinders. More conventional movie logic might spare her, because she's powerless and has to watch herself lose everything... but Tarantino's specifically breaching the unspoken taboo that the South has to be treated with dignity and respect, and that there something there beyond mere barbarism. The moment that she gets shot is the moment that it's clear that not a whit of respect will be paid this culture. It's the final nail in the coffin, so to speak.

The one whose death we don't watch is Stephen's. It's Stephen who bears witness to all this. Because the thing Django's blowing up isn't just Stephen's cozy position, his life of hypocrisy, all those more generalized movie themes. It's Stephen's belief that this way of life must be respected—that you can hate it or fear it, but you must respect it, you must find it powerful and awesome, you must find it worthy of contending with. To which Django goes, "Yeah, nah," and blasts it to bits.

I think it's telling that this third act begins with Django and the Australian miners, and that Tarantino casts himself in the role of one of those miners. After a film's worth of seeing various tropes of scary evil racists, we get these three dolts—and that's exactly what they are: dolts. They're scruffy, they're uncultured, and their greed isn't some magnificent industrialist thing: they just want to make some cash, which they'll probably spend in scruffy, dirty ways. This, it's implied, is all that any of this ever was. All the pretenses of dignity are just cosplay. (And Tarantino gets to have some fun casting himself against Samuel L. Jackson, for the first time since the scene in Pulp Fiction where he infamously uses a certain word a whole bunch, and here practically underlines his character's refusal to use that particular word while being racist. Which is silly, but I think it's funny, idk.)

Basically, the third act feels like a massive cathartic release in the wake of the first two acts. Acts 1 and 2 combined are a tragedy: a heroic act is committed, and consequences are suffered. Even if Schultz doesn't shoot Candie, you have a fundamentally tragic romance: Django would've gotten Broomhilda back on Candie's own terms, which is a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Tarantino sets that all up so we can see, and feel, what that story structure would have been... but it's all predicated on the notion that Candyland is a fearsome empire, and Tarantino's objective is to treat Candyland like a cardboard prop instead. It's not just grindhouse, it's farce. And the farce is Candyland, and by extension the Confederate South itself. These are terrible people, but they're also bullshit people. And when you shoot them they should go flying all around.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 9:36 AM on May 22 [11 favorites]

The fact that she gets shot so callously, and that the film literally yoinks her off-screen like there's a cane around her waist, should feel awful, not funny.

There's likely plenty to write about Lara, and more generally, the relative paucity of actress screen time. But the comedy of her death feels firmly rooted in the hyberbole of it. That is not how guns work, Quentin! Take that away and the revenge violence starts to mirror traumatic violence. It seems Tarantino is railroaded into the hyperbole, because otherwise it would put Django's unrestrained murder spree on the same moral level as slavers, as we watch him repeatedly torture his captors, their masters and even the unarmed. Thankfully there seem to have been no Candie children to further muddy the waters of a "kill them all and let god sort it out" finale.
posted by pwnguin at 11:58 AM on May 22

It would put Django's unrestrained murder spree on the same moral level as slavers, as we watch him repeatedly torture his captors, their masters and even the unarmed

That's another recurring theme of the loose trilogy I mentioned! The Basterds don't just kill Nazis in grotesquely violent ways, they do it in a movie that plays a fake Nazi propaganda film to draw equivalence between the film we're seeing and the film Nazis are. And Hollywood ends with Brad Pitt's character brutally murdering characters who, while their stated intents are vile, still get depicted as young and confused kids.

I think there're a number of ways to interpret that trend. Is it "violence is cathartic when it's unleashed on shitty people"? Is it "violence is propaganda even in service of a good cause"? Is it "we pretend to analyze violence in movies as an excuse to enjoy it"? I'm not sure, but it feels significant that it goes hand-in-hand with literal revisionist history. Knowing Tarantino, that could be a nod to similar patterns across film history, or a comment on the way we reframe and re-experience history through fictional entertainment, or just him thinking that this is interesting and/or funny.

My inclination is to see it as almost Brechtian: it's mindless entertainment that simultaneously calls attention to its own artifice and its manipulation. (Which again feels even more apparent having watched a bunch of Godard, because this is one of Godard's central techniques and commentaries: drawing attention to the things his films are doing in ways that don't make those things any less effective.) How better to talk about propaganda's effect on cultural knowledge than to make a piece of propaganda? It feels apropos to approach American history this way, when so much of American history is already a revisionist fable. And in this revisionist telling, the right people do the funnest violence! Hooray!
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 3:05 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

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