Short review: Go see it if you can.
But can you? For some people, the answer to that will be No, for either of a couple of good reasons.
If Quentin Tarantino's cinematic voice rubs you the wrong way, Django Unchained will likely be unwatchable. I respect that. I love Tarantino but recognize that there are good reasons to dislike his work. (Though if you are in that category and a cinephile, may I encourage you to give his relatively unrecognized gem Jackie Brown a try? It has a rather different tone.)
If you just cannot stomach onscreen violence, then you cannot watch Django Unchained. I'm a tough cookie who does not flinch at David Cronenberg's films, and I confess that there were a few times when I couldn't keep my eyes on the screen. If you're among the people who cannot metabolize that kind of movie, then skip this one.
Those exceptions aside, I strongly recommend catching Django Unchained while it's still on the big screen. The movie is terrific: smart, funny, wrenching, entertaining, and — yes — important.
I'll get to its virtues in a minute, but first I want to point to some of the picture's flaws, which stand out because Tarantino's skill in the medium sets a high bar. I gather that the release was a little rushed, which may have contributed to problems in the editing.
The pacing is flabby. Tarantino is a master at folding in a lot of digressions without it screwing up the rhythm, but that trick fails him this time.
That pacing problem probably helped to screw up one of his signature tricks, mixing up the tone. Tarantino stirs together comedy and action and drama and terror from scene to scene and even moment to moment. This makes it possible to deliver a spicier brew than would be palatable if he gave us any of those elements alone, and the way he does it in his best work, like Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds, can be magical. Frustratingly, Django Unchained sometimes slips the clutch when it changes gears. Indeed, there are a few moments where it feels like the movie is in danger of unraveling, though those moments pass without going that badly wrong.
Comparisons to Inglorious Basterds are inevitable, as both take on politically and culturally charged material. Of the two Django Unchained is more ambitious but less completely successful. So while I think most critics of Basterds simply failed to get what the film was doing, I don't see Unchained as the same kind of controlled statement. It will surely get some deservedly harsh criticism, and I look forward to reading that. But to borrow from Alan Kay, it is good enough to be worth criticizing.
Those reservations noted, it's still one of the best pictures of the year. Tarantino moves the camera with his usual brio, the dialogue is smart and fun, the winks toward the history of cinema are lovely if you like that sort of thing, and where it is funny it is often very, very funny.
A big part of the pleasure comes from the actors. Jamie Foxx delivers subtlety, magnetism, and movie star awesomeness all at once. Casting Christoph Waltz again after his turn as the sadistic yet charming SS officer in Inglorious Basterds is gimmicky, but what a great gimmick it is; Waltz is a miracle worker. Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke and makes it work, obviously having more fun than he's had in years; directors should stop giving him roles which call for that Serious Face thing he does and have him only play villains from now on. (The friend I saw the film with told me that when his character cuts his hand at one point, it was an accident he just played through. DiCaprio uses that bloody hand with an incredibly gutsy, irresponsible, and effective move.) Samuel L. Jackson uses his trick of being funny and menacing at the same time in playing the trickiest character in the movie. And there is some good work by actors in smaller roles, including a welcome appearance by Bruce Dern (who I'd assumed was no longer with us) and a surprisingly clever scene with, of all people, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill.
Of course, the main question is what happens when Tarantino's flippant tone collides with the crushing moral weight of slavery.
For a long time I praised and defended Tarantino's work as purely formal exercises, movies about movies, not about anything real. Some people think that makes the vulgarity and violence in his films irresponsible; I'm among those who take it the other way around, the layer of absurdity and unreality making forgivably cartoonish what would otherwise read as depravities.
But I don't think he's that filmmaker any more. He has, in an odd way, matured.
I've talked before about how Inglorious Basterds took half a step away from being a merely entertaining movie about movies. It remains a pastiche of other movies, especially WWII movies, but it also confronts us with questions about movie audiences and movie makers ... daring to hint at answers to those questions which do not flatter us. Maybe my critics are right, says Tarantino. Maybe my career of nihilistic pleasure in portraying violence is a symptom of something deeply wrong with all of us.
Django Unchained, too, remains a movie about movies, and a lot of it is the same old Tarantino borrowing from cinematic tropes — primarily, in this case, spaghetti westerns. But it's also a direct attack on how certain movie tropes connect to our culture.
Walking out of the theater, I tweeted ...
'Django Unchained' is, first among many interesting things, Tarantino vs. Selznick.
... because after seeing Django Unchained it is impossible to simply accept the romanticization of the antebellum South of David O. Selznick's Gone With The Wind. Tarantino has used his fame and talent and position in the film industry to inoculate a generation of filmgoers against Gone and its seductive power. It pains me to admit it, but Gone With The Wind is one of the all-time great movies, and its portrayal of the bloody toll of war was a gutsy and righteous piece of propaganda for its day. But it opens with this:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind ...
Ah, that grand lost Civilization of gallant slavemasters!
We cannot afford having that romantic horseshit leaking into our cultural consciousness. Someday, we'll be past its seductions, and Unchained will be a dated curiosity. But that day has not come yet, and we need the medicine that Unchained offers. Anyone who sees it won't just know better than to fall for the vision of the Old South from Gone With The Wind, they'll feel it as an deep reflex. Tarantino's power to entertain is the candy coating on a bitter pill of knowing at a gut level that the Old South was a cruel dystopia. That is no small feat.
When I saw that science fiction writer Steven Barnes wrote about it, recognizing Barnes as an astute observer of how racism works in American film I passed his post along to my Facebook friends, commenting that Barnes had confirmed that Tarantino had made the film I had hoped he was making.
.... it is hard to feel anything other than a kind of awe that this thing exists. There are maybe five filmmakers in the world who could have done it, and the other four didn't want to. A black director would have been too close — he actually would have to have been BETTER than Tarantino to pull this off — all the technical skills, and the writing skills, but sufficiently disconnected to maintain emotional distance ... but simultaneously channel a volcano of emotions.
Hard to find.
I don't know how “good” DJANGO is.
Flawed? You bet. Unique? You bet. Was I hypnotized? You bet. Will I see it again? Ya think?
So I believe that starting with Basterds we now have a Tarantino who is not just making movies about movies, but at last actually has important things to say about movies.
Go see what he says in this movie.
I can hardly wait for the next.
I'm gathering links. Note that most contain spoilers.
- At The Root, Henry Louis Gates has a long, fascinating dialogue with Tarantino about the film. (1 2 3) They talk a lot about not Gone With The Wind but Birth of a Nation. If you're not familiar with that film, you should be. Roger Ebert has a great introduction to it; DJ Spooky created a gorgeous commentary on it, Rebirth of a Nation.
- Mike Ryan interviews Tarantino for the Huffington Post about the caper plot which drives the last act.
- Steven Barnes' review doesn't just have that quote I pulled; there's also good commentary about masculinity and revenge and more. Check it out.
- Annalee Newitz at io9 has an instructive commentary which addresses the relationship between fantasy and history: “Django Unchained is movie that is mostly about black people, but make no mistake — it is a white man's fantasy.”
- Noah Smith at Noahpinion picks up Newitz' point with his post Django Unchained: A white revenge fantasy, arguing that the movie represents Whites rejecting a certain vision of Whiteness.
- Steven Boone at Indiewire offers commentary on Spike Lee's famous rejection of Tarantino's right to even make the film in the first place.
- Cord Jefferson at Gawker talks about how “it's almost impossible to not feel self-conscious when Tarantino asks you to rapidly fluctuate between laughing at the ridiculousness of Django's characters and falling silent with shame at the film's authentic historical traumas.”
- Scott Reynolds Nelson at the Chronicle of Higher Education traces the film's symbolic lineage through blaxpoitation films to Black folklore.
- Richard Brody at The New Yorker looks at the relationship between the two heroes of the movie.
- Stephen Marche at Esquire compares Django Unchained to Lincoln and finds Spielberg's effort lacking in comparison. A. O. Scott's review at the New York Times cannot resist a similar comparison.
- Jeffrey Overstreet writing at Patheos describes his ambivalence about the movie.
- Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker and Remeike Forbes at Jacobin remind us that slave resistance is not only fiction.
- Jesse Williams at CNN and then on his own tumblr criticizes the film sharply. I think in many ways he simply does not see what the film is trying to do — he describes at length of ahistorical and implausible the events of the story are — but I found it instructive in how someone with a very different frame of mine from own experienced the film.
- An amazing discussion of the film on SF writer Samuel R. Delaney's Facebook feed.
- Jamelle Bouie offers several interesting thoughts, including readings of the characters of Jackson's Steven and Waltz' Schultz which had not occurred to me.
- Moviebob at The Escapist has videoessays reviewing the movie and examining whether it is fundamentally racist.
I've got my eye out for more commentaries and will add them as I find them. I'm hoping to find something incisive about Samuel L. Jackson's scary Uncle Tom character of Stephen, the biggest element of the film where I'm not sure what I think.
One last thought:
Given my skepticism about political violence, I've always been unhappy with Maya Angelou's choice of images to represent profound, dedicated support. But here it is, in fictional form at least.