Having your Cake and Eating it too in Django Unchained

Why I do declare!  Leo is a VILLAIN!

Why I do declare! Leo is a VILLAIN!

In 1858, somewhere in the Texas wilderness, a German immigrant dentist (Christoph Waltz) comes across some fellas transporting slaves and begins to curiously inquire about a certain one named Django (Jamie Foxx).  Turns out that dentist is a bounty hunter, and he needs Django to identify some targets.  Turns out that Django, once unshackled, is more than happy to oblige.  Thus begins the start of a beautiful friendship in Quentin Tarantino’s latest bit of exploitative hipster shock-schlock historical revisionist revenge fantasy.  In his own signature absurdist self-referencing way, Tarantino combines many of the good elements that made Inglourious Basterds his masterpiece with many of the bad elements of every other overrated film he’s ever made.

See that dentist ain’t such a bad guy, wielding his own brand of justice, and Django has his own personal mission to track down his wife (Kerry Washington, allowed only to cry and get pushed around) who was sold down river in Mississippi to a one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) of the infamous plantation called…you guessed it…Candie Land.  Thus an episodic journey begins culminating in an overly elaborate scheme to free Django’ wife, and for the first well-paced two hours it’s a pretty damn entertaining ride.

The musical choices (which include bass-pumping rap anthems, soft rock hits from the 70’s and personalized theme songs for our two heroes) are among Tarantino’s most eclectic to date.  It’s his way of keeping the audience on their toes and reminding us we’re watching a movie.  Nobody ever accused Tarantino of realism.  Meanwhile cinematographer Robert Richardson does a great job evoking some of the old Spaghetti Westerns while adding splashes of genuine dread in scenes like the flashback to the flame-lit tracking of Django and his runaway bride, but also genuine beauty like when Django and the Dentist first begin “Moving Me Down the Highway” against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

There are individual sequences in the film that speak to the best of Tarantino’s repertoire.  Take for instance the hilarious scene where a mob gathers for a raid on Django and the Dentist and go through a comic routine about the shoddy job done by one of the guy’s wives cutting the eye-holes in the sheets they wish to put over their heads.  Often insidious evil is the brother of insane stupidity.  And in episode after episode for most of the film Django and the Dentist have their way against these hateful morons much to the cheers of the audience.  At Candie Land, Samuel L. Jackson appears as the most maniacal, meddling and cajoling house slave to Mr. Candie, and some of his lines had people in the audience howling.  I’m still not sure what these reactions say about us, Mr. Jackson or Tarantino.  These scenes of almost cathartic hilarity are juxtaposed with scenes of abject horror – like a man being torn apart by dogs or Mr. Candie showing his true nature when he gives a little eugenics lesson with a hammer.  In these scenes, DiCaprio is truly terrifying.

Dude extraordinaire Tarantino again shows off his linguistic chops, giving Foxx some great one-liners while allowing Waltz (who after winning an Oscar playing Tarantino’s Hans Landa was ridiculously typecast as a villain in just about every film) to do a lot of clever explaining every step of the way.  When Django and the Dentist get to Candie Land, the tete-a-tete’s between Waltz and DiCaprio are exactly what we paid money to see and Tarantino brings a certain joi-de-vivre to the scenes where DiCaprio is allowed to relish in playing against type and Waltz seems happier than a pig in slop playing to his strengths once again.  Much like Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Candie is a sadistic villain whose grotesque brand of racism is topped only by his desire to be clever and one-up his sparring partners in business deals.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

But once Tarantino builds that suspense through dialogue and through playing with the audience’s expectation that this sick bastard Candie is going to get his comeuppance, he backs his storyline and characters into a corner.  And he doesn’t seem to know how to get out of it except by shooting, leading to the film stretching on thirty minutes too long and the audience to have to endure multiple blood baths; rescues, recaptures and escapes; and one scene involving the threat of castration that went way too far for this viewer. 

Bizarrely at one point in this monstrous mess of a third act, Tarantino shows up in a cameo as an Australian mining goon (WFT?) only to have himself exploded by TNT, as if to say to the audience, “Yup, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore so I’m just gonna blow myself up!  TAAA DAAA!”  In just one film, the director has come down a long way from conjuring the unforgettable projected “Face in the Smoke” scene from Inglourious Basterds.  How quickly the mighty can fall.

While I was rooting for Django all the way, he over-stayed his welcome.  Much like Mr. Candie, after erroneously thinking he got the better of Django and the Dentist in a deal, wants everyone to enjoy a slice of that white cake, Tarantino tries to have his cake and eat it too.  I’d be lying if I said some pieces of that cake weren’t damn tasty…but maybe next time Tarantino can try a slice of humble pie.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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3 comments on “Having your Cake and Eating it too in Django Unchained

  1. zackmandell says:

    This is a very well done movie review again. I am going to have to get out to check this one out this weekend. Keep up the great work.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    I saw the shooting and the exceeding violence as send-ups on the spaghetti western genre, so they didn’t bother me this time. The film engaged me for it’s long running time, and there were times I would describe it as hysterical. But I understand your issues, since I had my own with past Tarantino works. Anyway, as always a provocative essay, whether or not we are in large agreement or not.

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