Tambay's Epic 'Django Unchained' Review - Kill The Noise (Nothing Is Silent)

Reviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
December 12, 2012 3:03 PM
39 Comments
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As for the rest of The Good...

- QT does a really good job of what I call "world-building." Thanks to the work done by his team - especially on production design, set design, cinematography, and of course the acting, and all the other pieces of this pie - I was usually (though not always) immersed in the world he creates. Occasionally, I was taken out of it (more on that in "The Bad" section), but I'd say that for the majority of its running time, I was in that world. Sometimes the pieces worked together very seamlessly, because you're engaged, and having a good ol' time. There are a few really memorable moments that could be enough to hold a movie together, even if much of the rest of it is kind of humdrum; for example, a constantly stern Jamie Foxx's exchanges with Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie and his men, are often especially witty and sharp. And I have to tip my hat to DiCaprio's performance as Candie. Wunderbar, as Waltz would probably say! One of the film's strongest and most memorable, grounded-in-reality moments, is during a dining room scene after DiCaprio's Candie learns he's being duped by his 2 guests. He goes from cool and calm, as he recounts a somewhat creepy tale, and there's a wonderful sudden devilish turn in his demeanor that erupts into a violent outburst, taking his two guests (who are used to being one step ahead of their opponents) by complete surprise. It's a really good scene, and one that I think might help secure an Oscar nomination for DiCaprio (whether he can win is another thing, but I think he'll be in the conversation, if he isn't already). Even though he wasn't at all what I imagined for the character when I read the script (I believe I imagined he'd be much older - at least, older-looking - heavier, and even slimier), his portrayal of a southern, ostentatious, we could even say metrosexual (at least, what that word may have meant during that time period) plantation owner in the antebellum south, is, at times, deliciously evil; but just not enough. I could tell he was having a lot of fun with it. Of course it helps that he's a good actor.

- And finally, in one of Hollywood studio big-budget cinema's rare moments, a black man gets to be THE hero in the end, saves the day, shooting and killing a lot of white men in the process, and rides into, not quite the sunset, but the moonlight in this case (given how the film ends), with his woman, rescued and proud of her man, riding at his side. To some that might seem like a sexist vision; but to others, a rare, black, masculine cinematic moment to relish unapologetically. As I said earlier, Django is very much his own man - a man on a mission, determined, focused and unwavering in his ultimate goal. He's not emasculated, aside from being initially set free by Waltz's Schulz, at the very beginning of the film. But there's no proverbial white saviour here.

AND NOW THE BAD

- As I said earlier, the pre-release marketing for the film is deceiving - specifically quotes (some we've shared) from the key cast and crew, which really don't jive with the brisk, amusing trailers we've seen. It's not quite the brutally realistic, heart-wrenching human drama of survival, love and death that it's purported to be by some; it's more of a mish-mash send-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation cinema, with quite a lot more comedy than you might expect for a slave narrative, with the main goal being to entertain than to inform or incite. I get that it's a nod to Spaghetti Westerns of years past, but if you've seen any of those films, this might just seem like a well-made spoof or knock-off of those original classics. I dare you to watch the first silent 15 minutes (or the final 2-man showdown between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson) of Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West; or the last 15 minutes of The Good The Bad And The Ugly, and not appreciate the quiet tension in each. Except for DiCaprio's moment as I described above, Django Unchained feels mostly breezy, and predictable. And those past films had much more of an epic sweep to them, than Django does. And I think that's in part due to the fact that, again, Tarantino plays up the comedy more than some of the film’s predecessors (the two I mentioned for example), which felt weightier and grittier to me; the harsh, weathered variety of faces in closeups, staring each other down, all looking like they belonged exactly in the worlds where the films are set. I’m thinking of, again, names already mentioned, like Bronson, Fonda, and also Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, and even the ebullient, yet very sly and dangerous Eli Wallach as Tuco. I believed them all. In Django, I found it hard to take most of its characters very seriously. In fact, aside from Jamie Foxx's Django, who I'd say is really the only character that felt grounded in reality, much of the rest of the starring cast played more like caricatures - exaggerations of the people they would be in real life; Far more comical than menacing as evil slave owners and slave drivers during the time that the film takes place. Even Christoph Waltz's Schulz - quick and deadly on the draw, but still played mostly for laughs. And for all his strengths as an actor (in this film as well) DiCaprio suffers from what I'd call "babyface syndrome" which, at times, gets in the way of really seeing him as this supposedly evil, frightening slave master of a villain. There's a scene with early KKK members, in which they've gathered to plot and carry out a scheme that's so comical and ridiculous that, in a way, trivializes the unimaginable cruelty that blacks faced at the hands of the real-life KKK for many decades to come. And so herein lies a problem - if you don't really fear your villains, and what they might be capable of, because you're instead laughing at how comically they are parodied, that kind of ruins the revenge experience doesn't it? When our forever-stern black hero finally gets his opportunity to act heroically, it just doesn't resonate as much. It's not as satisfying as it should have been. As exceptional as our black hero is (even as a slave - "he's a born natural" I believe is the line Waltz delivers, when Django makes his first kill), his opponents aren't quite as exceptional. In fact, right from the very start, they are all more like buffoons, incompetent, and, to be frank, no match for our hero (aside from the fact that there's an existing system that prevents out hero from acting on his desires) which some could argue is actually a disservice to our hero. He's robbed of a certain kind of masculine *dignity* in that regard.

- As I noted in "The Good," there isn't as much slave violence depicted as you might expect. Hints of it, and flashes here and there (like a Mandingo fight - although in the film Mandingo, Ken Norton's very first real fight as Mede, was quite brutal - maybe even more-so), but nothing that'll shock you - especially if you've read a few books on slavery, or watched some past films and documentaries on the subject; or even if you've just heard about it in passing, I think most of us have some idea of not just the mental, but also the physical cruelty black people suffered as slaves. In short, some really horrible shit happened; just think of some of the unimaginable, inhumane things human beings have done, and continue to do to animals; because that's essentially what slaves were - not entirely human to those who enslaved them at the time, and were treated as such. Very, very little of that is actually in the film! And it made me wonder if that was an intentional decision by QT. Maybe feeling like he could be criticized for being seemingly exploitative, he chose restraint instead; although some might argue that he was too restrained. The most visually violent sequences happen towards the film’s end, as I noted above, in a series of gun fights - a shootout that shows lots of exploding body parts, hit by bullets, with blood gushing and splattering in volumes, and bodies falling all over the place. The problem here is that the violence, played out often in very slow motion (I suppose to emphasize each bullet hit, gushing blood, as limbs are torn into with bullets, like slabs of meat on a butcher's table), is a tad cartoonish that, again, it's hard to take it seriously. Yes, some might cringe at the blood splatter, but I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at what felt like an excess of it, instead of being horrified by it. Or maybe I'm just so numb to violence on screen that I wasn't affected by any of it. But, if you've seen any R-rated (especially those hard-R-rated) horror movies like those in the Hostel or Saw franchise, there's absolutely nothing here that's at all shocking or that will make you cringe - especially with regards to violence endured by slaves in the film, which, as I already noted, is limited to really a few scenes. If we're talking about contemporary revenge cinema, or films in which a man is driven to act heroically, or vigilante-style, inspired by his love for a woman, I was far more taken by the sheer force of Kim Ji-woon's unrelentingly violent, and stunningly accomplished thriller, I Saw The Devil, than I was by Django. And as I noted, it's really interesting to me (and maybe it's just me) that Tarantino seemed to be very, very cautious depicting any violence as experienced by slaves specifically. There's much more violence against the white slave owners and slave drivers, and others in that chain of command, than there is in the opposite direction. And I just wonder if that was an intentional or even a subconscious choice by QT. Whether it's a good or bad thing depends on your POV. As I said in "The Good" section, there are two ways of looking at that aspect. Those who are hoping to see the *realities* and hardships of slavery, warts and all, will be disappointed; those who'd rather not, won't be.

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39 Comments

  • Serene | September 15, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    I agree with what was said in other comments, that the scenes of slaves forced to fight each other and being ripped apart by dogs were horrifyingly unrestrained. I saw this film in the theater and was extremely uncomfortable during these drawn out scenes. I think that choice was intentional. One of the few times a QT movie is intentionally uncomfortable during violence rather than making violence seem badass. I am usually not in favor of excessive violence, but for this choice I give QT kudos.

  • Nadia | December 31, 2012 8:57 AMReply

    I finally saw it last night and I think this part of your review sums the whole thing up: "And above all else - if there's one thing that you should take away from all this, despite the backdrop on which this story unfolds - it's still very much a QT movie. His name and everything his name conjures up in your heads when it's mentioned, trumps the fact that it's a slave narrative. He's an "entertainment" filmmaker - obviously a smart, informed one too. But he's not out to affect change in the world, or inspire/incite action against, or for a specific cause, or force you to re-examine the path you've chosen to take in your life. He wants you to walk out of the theater after sitting through 2 1/2 hours of his movies, saying, "fuck yes, that was an awesome fucking kick-ass movie, alright!"" That pretty much sums it up. People can't get worked up about this movie because it's not that kinda movie. You've got to be dense if you're going to see this thinking it's going to be something all heavy and serious about slavery, especially since it's directed by Tarantino. If you've seen his past films, you should know what you're in for. Either you roll with it or you don't. But don't get all pissed off if you're seeing it expecting one kind of movie but get something totally different.

  • akroc | December 30, 2012 8:29 PMReply

    So a scene in which a slave gets ripped apart by dogs. And a scene when one slave is forced to bash another one in the head with a hammer after pushing his eyes in is restrained?

  • Stan | December 27, 2012 12:30 AMReply

    Restrained depiction of violence against slaves? Showing a slave getting ripped apart alive by attack dogs is restrained? I usually love Tarantino's films, but scenes like that seem out of place in his usual world of comic violence. They belong in more serious and reverent depictions of slavery's horrors. I am not offended by this film, I was just left feeling uncomfortable. The best analogy I can think of is Inglourious Basterds with some gas chamber scenes thrown in there. Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful review, and I am finding everyone's opinions very interesting. At least this film is sparking a lot of debate.

  • bashe | December 26, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    I can't---for the life of me---figure out why anyone would complain about the length of a review, any review. There's no such thing as required reading on-line, is there? Anyway, I really appreciated this in-depth response to the film. I agreed with some of your points/stances, some I didn't (I thought Sam Jackson was mesmerizing, and brought his character to life in a layered, multi-faceted, deeply disturbing performance---I completely agreed with what Wesley Morris said about Jackson's performance in the Boston Globe), but I deeply appreciate your stretching out on this film the way you did. Thank you.

  • DLG | December 25, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    Thanks - this is the most objective take/review that I have read including the one by Skip Gates. Not being a big Tarantino fan I won't be seeing the flick until it comes out on DVD and I can get from the library. From what I can gather DU is pretty much a pulp movie like Tarzan (Django) and Jane (Brunhilde)

  • Alex | December 24, 2012 8:31 AMReply

    "..but it's also not quite successful as this mish-mash send-up of previous popular genres, in my humble opinion"

    Humble? I just read 4 pages of anything but!
    This essay was definitely worth a read - you referenced far too many other films you wanted it to be like and it's plain to see you had no intention of ever liking this film from the beginning - thats cool - maybe, like me sometimes, you play the devils advocate or just do not like to go with grain. That is a wonderful stance to have. However all your essay made me want to do was see the movie. It's like everyone, including yourself, expected more than what we know Tarantino can offer. Revenge flicks that turn the conventional on its head : What if a white, blonde bride took on 88 crazy yakuza's ; what if a bunch of girls take on a psychotic stunt man?; A Jewish woman, duping a Nazi coupe in a french cinema with a black guy as her lover?; hey what if a black slave just decided to go on the war path and get his wife back?... but its set in the wild west.
    Old concepts using misplaced vehicles as the hook. Don't believe the hype? it's tarantino, there is always hype. Just most people (black people) were getting ahead of themselves because of the subject matter. Understandable - it's a subject matter, like the Holocaust that when broached can breach a lines of disrespect and ignorance. However it's a Tarantino flick - nothing more or less. I know exactly what I'm going to be getting; humour, cynicism and a whole lot of air kisses to films of old because that man loves to pay homage to his influences.

  • THE FIRST | December 23, 2012 8:25 PMReply

    I wished you would've condensed this into a 1500- word essay.

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:26 AM

    Touche Alex.

  • fish | December 23, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    great review. One of the best movie criticisms I have seen in a while.

  • Blackman | December 23, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    Brevity DUDE! This is a blog. We are NOT your professors. Learn to keep Shi! simple, direct and PLAIN. I got better shi! to read than a 4 page right up on a movie. Besides, who does this? Roger & Ebert never did.

  • Tambay | December 23, 2012 12:11 PM

    I could give a shit who else does this. This is how I do it. If it's too long for you, don't read it and move on to something that's more your speed. Stop whining!

  • turner | December 22, 2012 5:07 PMReply

    More like a thesis than a review... TMI

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:30 AM

    You're an excellent writer Tambay, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. However, it was a tad long.

  • yemi toure | December 20, 2012 7:55 PMReply

    Quentin Tarantino has the word "nigger" in "Django Unchained" 110 times. What??? What is his underlying point for using it *that many* times? And if you say, "That's just how it was, back then," how many times will we hear "cracker"?

  • ska-triumph | December 15, 2012 10:58 PMReply

    While I look forward to reading this review, Sergio's take, and all of the insightful, passionate comments, after having seen the film at an AMPAS screening last week, I can at least pass my two cents. It's all Tarantino in tone and taste. Darkly comic, openly explotative, cartoonish violent, testosterone-driven, sociopolitial simple. That being said it's a good slavery-revenge/spaghetti-western mashup flick; a beautifully shot mess in every way but performance; the committed cast chewed up every minute. More insights to come I'm sure... Vigilance.

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:41 AM

    @YEMI TOURE, Black folks were either referred to as Niggers, or Nigras back then. Why do people continue to harp on QT's usage of this word? It's like when black folks were outraged by the way the maids spoke in The Help, as if black maids in the very deep south didn't actually speak that way. It's unfortunate, but there was a time in this country's history when we were referred to as Nigger wenches and bucks. That's just the truth, however ugly it may be.

  • cruz77 | December 14, 2012 2:16 AMReply

    thanks for a real review. way too many are just, "i love this, so enjoyable" without actually explaining why

  • Lox | December 13, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    So no award nomination for any black character in this film. We are reduced to playing extra in our own story again!! No plan to see it thank you very much.

  • that dude | December 15, 2012 11:15 AM

    What do awards have to do with a movie itself? Some of the greatest black films and black performances of all time have not been recognized by award organizations.

  • SameOl' | December 13, 2012 9:30 AMReply

    This is the same ol' bs served up to try to get Black folks' money. Leave it alone. Golden Globes nominated the movie and qt and all da gud yt folk, but nobody else. Don't fall for it. Tell 'em where they can stick this sh*t!

  • Rye | December 26, 2012 6:50 PM

    Your absolutely right...another ploy to get our money.

  • CANDI | December 13, 2012 9:22 AMReply

    GOLDEN GLOBE NOMS FOR DJANGO
    LEO
    CHRISTOPHER
    QUENTIN

  • Africameleon | December 13, 2012 12:43 AMReply

    Ya'll are a mess.... I gotta job. I can't read all this!!!

  • Monique A. Williams | December 12, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    Great, balanced review. I know QT wasn't trying to make another Goodbye Uncle atom, and I'm interested in seeing how he spun this. More intrigued by the day! Thanks for the lengthy, indepth review, Tambay!

  • JMac | December 12, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    As always thanks for the thorough review. I had no plans to see it and still don't but I like reading balanced reviews on hot button movies. Especially glad that this doesn't have some Mandinga/sex slave exploitation sh%t in it. I accidently came across that movie without knowing what it was, watched 10 minutes then shut it off before it scarred me for life. Considering this film seems weaker on the violence (which would be the only reason many people would want to watch such a film), I have a silent wish that perhaps QT will be "persuaded" to find a better use of his time than churning out more slave movies.

  • Agent K | December 12, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    After hearing Calvinis killed by Schultz, what can be worse for Sam's character? Were his hands chopped off?

  • jacetooon | December 12, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    Man way to spoil Django 1966.

  • Orville | December 12, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    Nice review Tambay, I am disappointed that Kerry Washington's character Broomhilda wasn't a major role in this film. But I disagree with Tambay about Kerry Washington taking the part now. Besides Scandal virtually ALL of Kerry Washington's films she's been in a supporting role.

    It is interesting, that only on television Kerry's gotten the opportunity to be the female lead role.
    Interesting also, you say Tambay that you think it is a step down for Kerry but I think Kerry is actually smart for taking this role. Let's face it, Hollywood is about publicity and Kerry Washington knows being in a Tarantino film is going to get her name in the papers. Although, I will say I agree with Tambay that Scandal is truly Kerry's breakthrough role and not Django Unchained. I am hoping that Hollywood takes notice of Kerry and finally gives her a lead in a Hollywood film I would love to see her in a romantic drama where she is the female lead and the main star of the film.

  • nika | December 22, 2012 5:43 PM

    Agreed, KW has been in supporting roles up until now. A year ago this would have been a role she should have taken, even though the author disagrees. The only reason we think it's a step down now is because of Scandal. Now, I will say KW has been underrated all of this time. Now her name is finally on the radar. Scandal did it and Django will help keep it there even if it's a small role.

  • Michael | December 12, 2012 6:51 PMReply

    Really smart, thoughtful review. I agree with the bulk of your assessment, although I think I enjoyed Christoph Waltz a bit more than you did. He was masterful in setting the tone of the film early on, and has a unique way of individualizing QT's dialogue, when he often seems to write the bulk of his characters with the same voice. I thought Jamie was quite solid, and I was very apprehensive about his ability to pull off the roll. At 165 minutes, it felt about 20-25 minutes too long, but ultimately I enjoyed it much more than Inglorious Basterds.

  • Justin W | December 12, 2012 6:26 PMReply

    After reading this, it seems most of fears about the film have been erased. Thanks for the good read Tambay.

  • Skud Wilkins | December 12, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    ''This is a role that should have gone to an up-and-coming actress looking to break in, and raise industry awareness for herself; not for a seasoned actress like Kerry Washington.'' Heh. Very interesting review, except for this bit. Next time Tarantino should hire you to do the casting.

  • Donella | December 12, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    Well, you've thought long and hard on this, Tambay.

  • Curtis | December 12, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    This movie is gettin rave reviews. Looks like it is living up to the hype. It's rotten tomatoes score is 100% with 19 reviews so far. I will be there opening day. So happy for the cast.

  • Les Grossman | December 12, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    i skipped "The Bad" section.k,thanx,bye!!

  • Tamara | December 12, 2012 4:00 PMReply

    Ah, thanks for your thoughts on the film. With what you posit, it's as if QT brought marshmallows to a clambake. I love your mentions and comparisons/contrasts of the original Django as well as Mandingo and Mandinga (which I did not know existed), Ingloriuos Basterds, as well as the overall blaxploitation flavor attributed to QT's filmmaking aesthetic. What you mention of Leo DiCaprio and his babyface as you put it. I have to say that it took me some years to see through his baby face to the man he is in the character he embodies. Don't worry, you'll get there, too. LOL. I'm on the fence with Broomhilda von Shaft, the name as well as the character/ization, but I look forward to drawing conclusions of my own. Likewise, the overall regarding the depiction of a slavery piece too soft, not soft enough, too hard, too violent, graphic, real, dramatized, romanticized, etc. again thank you for not spoiling but giving enough to continue to pique my interest in this work. I'm a fair-weather QT fan, as well as a fair-weather spaghetti western blaxploitation pulp fan, but Django has been all thanks to S&A on my must-see list since its public announcement upon QTs inception of the work. As I said in Sergio's post, I look forward to QTs other slavery-era ideas for pictures. I'm interested, indeed and that is a good first step up from fair-weather, no? Take care.

  • B | December 12, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    DVD for me... Thanks for a balanced review.

  • Taz | December 12, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    "As an aside, I noticed that his character faced what I thought was a far more gruesome fate than his master, which begs the questions: who's worse - the slave master, or the Uncle Tom?"

    From my point of view of reading comments on this blog and others, the black man is worse because we do not give them any grace, mercy, slack, or a teeny piece of tissue to wipe the crap off their behinds.

    Otherwise, this was a decent review.

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