Film Review: Django Unchained

There is no excuse for the degradation, drawn-out violence and torture depicted here.

Django Unchained follows the trail of an unlikely pair: a European wanderer cum Western bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, and freed slave Django, whom he takes under his wing. The film travels a long series of Three Acts and for the First Act we primarily follow the pair as they mete out vengeance, kill, pick up bounty, and generally court the edges of what is deemed acceptable and right.

This course highlights two major themes: slavery just before the Civil War, and killing for bounty, creating a gripping tension between right and wrong, ethical and criminal. We watch Schultz free Django—then kill a man in front of his son. These conflicts could serve as very fascinating subject matter.

However, Quentin Tarantino decides to take us in another direction for Acts Two and Three, where slavery takes center stage with smutty, shocking violence. This is a film that not only depicts violence but worships it with loving, doting shots of whippings, lashings, torture, hangings, and constant degradation.  The major actors each show their range and ability to embody characters with reality and depth. Yet, the wrapping of great acting and cinematography cannot and should not deter viewers from seeing this film for what it is: violence pornography.

With Django Unchained, the lure of the shallow, infantile and tacky proved too much for Tarantino and sadly, no one stopped him. He had fertile subject matter; incredible talent; complex characters. He missed a magnificent chance to create a meaningful exploration of his subject matter. Instead, he has merely added to his stockpile of guts and gore that is important more for its sensationalism than brilliance.

The actors gave stellar performances that are worthy of a far superior film.

Jamie Foxx plays Django, whose ignorance belies a fierce genius. He’s a man whose woeful life fuels a burning desire to brandish his talents. We find him as he is freed, then follow his path as he is slowly, turbulently unchained.

Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a most enigmatic foreigner. His passions and reasons are elusive. He is helpful, cold, and above all, inexplicable. His final act in the film is a case in point.

With unerring skill, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a decaying Southerner, beautifully made but beneath the skin a vile and vicious bog. He shares this charming distinction with Big Daddy, played with nuanced wit by Don Johnson in a smaller part. During the Big Daddy passage of scenes, the KKK is skewered with skill. These scenes are small treats that point to Tarantino’s talent with dark comedy. Yet they are tiny, easily suffocated beneath a brutal blanket.

Samuel L. Jackson is his nastiest as Stephen, the Slave who ‘takes care of’ Candie, just like men before him took care of Candie men for generations. A superb study of the application of power, Stephen is a fawning, malicious and formidable force.

Then there is Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, the slave of a Southern family whose roots are German. Broomhilda, maid to the family daughter, was brought up with refinement and kindness. …And here we come to the “Monsters Ball” paradox again. The black woman as an object. Washington plays the ladies maid as well as the enslaved, degraded woman with dignity and grace. But there she is for us to peruse, in the hot box, having her dress torn from her, living in perpetual terror of being sold, used, pimped, found-out. She could be an empathetic character, but the physical manifestation of her plight is depicted with sickening glee.

Enthusiasts of Tarantino indulgently point to the silliness, the crazy over the top manner of his oeuvre that they find hilarious. Yet this is no “Monty Python’s Holy Grail,” nor even “Pulp Fiction.” Indeed, the lash, the screams, the blood and the pain are vivid. What exactly is there to admire? To laugh at? While there are plenty of ridiculous scenes of bloodshed, most scenes are obscenely realistic. What is so artistic about being great at depicting the most brutal violence? Great technique does not forgive the subject matter’s hyperbolic, admiring view of pain being delivered.

Django can be used, at best, as a portrait in startling colors of a deranged society that cries over gunned-down 6 year olds and then pays to view scenes of morbid, constant cruelty, where the epithet nigger is flung like rounds of verbal machine gunning, as if that were a stab at being realistic on a set where realism is obliterated from Scene One. There is no reality here. This is pure fantasy, a dark and sad fantasy of blatant and open cruelty.

Yes, the history of the slave trade is full of cruelty. This is my point: this film takes that appalling violence and manipulates it to cater to a sickness that sits and pervades many of us, a need and desire for savagery that cannot wait for that next horror or thriller or sci-fi flick—as long as it has guns, knives and blood. That promise that we seem to be begging for: There Will Be Blood.

Can we say of ourselves that as long as an offering into our public consciousness is made with craft, with skill, with talent, that we call it art? Can we say of ourselves that we will continue to push the boundary of what is viewable as long as it has been draped in artistic folds? That is what Django Unchained means to me: another dismal, chilling lowering of inhibitions about what is viewable and what should be watched.

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