Films by Quentin Tarantino aren't exactly Halley's Comet, but for a while there, they didn't come as often as some filmgoers would have liked. And while the filmmaker seems to be back at his pace of delivering a film every two or three years, the arrival of a new Tarantino picture generally makes the cinema world sit up and take notice. And as always, opinions on his films vary wildly from film to film, from cinephile to cinephile.
As such we thought we'd try something a little different with three takes on "Django Unchained" from The Playlist staff that are generally pretty divergent. It's not a completely comprehensive good, bad, and ugly breakdown on the three hour epic, but it's close. So without further ado, reviews from reviewer Gabe Toro, podcast editor Erik McClanahan and Rodrigo Perez below.
There are three movies that make up “Django Unchained.” All three are vital, alive, and further proof that Quentin Tarantino is one of the most distinct and relevant filmmakers working today. The first opens on a dusty road on the eve of the Civil War, as the avuncular Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) claims chain gang slave Django (Jamie Foxx) by violently disposing of his two owners (one of them is James Remar, who crops up later in the second of these three films in a different role). After an extended visit to a small town, wherein Schultz upends their social order by teaming with his slave to remove a wanted man out of the sheriff’s office, “Django Unchained” has proven its prerogative in upsetting a certain status quo.
This subversion continues into a visit to the home of rich folk Big Daddy (Don Johnson), who hems and haws upon learning Django is a free man, and therefore deserving of a more elaborate hierarchal treatment from his own slaves. Schultz employs Django to spot his former slaveowners, wanted criminals according to the legal papers Schultz removes from his dandy coat pocket as if it were bottomless. Instead, an empowered Django attacks the three savages who caused him pain, and Tarantino allows him, and us, to revel in the moment when he grabs up a whip and lashes out at one of them with merciless vigor. Shot in slow motion, not very different from how we’ve seen this moment play out in historical dramas, Tarantino builds to the violence with his unbridled bloodlust on full display. At this moment, a stand-up-and-cheer sequence, we’re seeing Tarantino Unchained.
Establishing Django and Schultz as the meanest bounty hunters of the south, the picture then merges into its second installment. In search of Django’s bride Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the duo find themselves at Candyland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like the film, characters take the opportunity to play nice, adhering to the social strata of the time, forcing us to give up the more overt subversion of the first film in favor of pure genre immersion. Candyland is a place of sickening violence, as Candie hosts Mandingo brawls that allow for his black slaves to battle to the death. When one does not comply, he’s torn apart by dogs. Tarantino’s film is not as explicit as it can be, yet it still resonates when the realization sets in (a realization cinephile Tarantino knows all too well) that slavery is usually treated in cinema with kid gloves. A brief reference to “nigger holes” where dead slaves are stacked and discarded tells us all we need to know.
Candie’s largesse and Southern-gentleman values house a deep disregard for humanity. He is first and foremost a capitalist, of course (a point not lost on contemporary audiences, hopefully) but one who shows such open disdain towards his slaves that they are acknowledged only as property to be exchanged for cash in transactions. While he’s always had a jagged edge to his adult performances, DiCaprio’s casting here is not unlike Henry Fonda’s in “Once Upon A Time In The West,” a strong right turn into darkness compared to a career as a true-blue American leading man. DiCaprio lacks the raw talent to go full ham (or full H.A.M.) for a part like this, which means what we’re dealing with is not one of Tarantino’s more colorful, wacky bad guys. DiCaprio goes the other way, playing up the inhumanity within this man’s pragmaticism. Like Schultz and Django, we’re trapped in Candyland, forced to listen to Candie’s unpleasant dissertations on the slave trade and the accurate uses of slaves. Growing up as the scion to a rich family, this is all he knows, and DiCaprio captures this myopia to a stomach-churning degree. It’s very much the year’s most upsetting performance by a major movie star.
The third film, and jankiest by far, involves Django’s quest for revenge, and Tarantino’s desire to thumb his nose at the establishment. The bloodshed is comically messy, with squibs exploding as if they were stored in condoms, thrown by frat boys. There’s a little bit of farcical spoof humor in place as well, with Django’s strut now accompanied by contemporary soundtrack rhymes from Rick Ross, with the irreverent sass-talk of Samuel L. Jackson’s postmodern Sambo as Candie’s reliable assistant Stephen, clouding the audience’s sympathies. On its own, this third leg of “Django Unchained” is a blast, funny, fast and excessively violent, even if its entirely nonsensical. The verbal jousting between Django and Stephen (an overt Uncle Tom in every sense of the word -- wonder what Quentin's old friend Spike thinks) is a highlight, particularly with Foxx’s sneering, swaggy characterization versus Jackson’s wide-eyed anger; Jackson in particular hasn’t been this engaged in years, even if it’s under a thick coat of black makeup and fake jowls, choices of purposely questionable taste.
The question remains: what do these movies have to do with each other? Where is the similarity between the excessively cartoonish giant tooth that bounces on top of former dentist Schultz’s wagon, and Candie’s disquieting lecture on a black’s skull? Does a moment where KKK members argue over the size of hood eyeholes have any relation to the nasty brutality shown to Django’s one-note pursuit Broomhilda? And when Django teaches his horse to pimp walk (yes, this happens), it seems as if we’re a long ways from the upsetting shot of a battered Django peeling off his tattered winter rags, revealing a brutally-battered bare back. “Django Unchained” is an insane mess in several ways, showing one of our great filmmakers unfocused and chaotic, attempting racial and political insight while also satiating his own cinephila. A moment when Foxx’s Django crosses paths with a nameless man seems to prove the point: as servants hustle to clean up and dispose of the dead remains of a bloody, disturbing Mandingo fight, we learn our hero is face-to-face with Franco Nero, the original Django himself. The torch of cinema history is passed, and we’re meant to ignore the corpses lying right behind it all. [B] -- Gabe Toro