Let’s start by noting that I have always enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s films. Sure Tarantino is crazy (eccentric?), but he’s original, he’s unafraid and he’s a genius. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are classics. I even thought Tarantino had some profound things to say and that his use of graphic violence was carefully measured and used for satirical purposes. But that all changed with Kill Bill 1 and 2. I enjoyed Kill Bill and loved Inglourious Basterds, but they both (i.e. all three films) felt like guilty pleasures. Between them came the unimpressive (to me) Death-Proof. During the past decade, I have grown increasingly uneasy watching Tarantino’s films, and especially worried about his love of graphic violence.
Now Tarantino has made his most critically acclaimed film since Pulp Fiction (1994). Django Unchained is a dark comedy (all Tarantino films are dark comedies) western about two bounty hunters (a German dentist called King Schultz and a former slave named Django) who slaughter bad guys for cash on their way to finding, and trying to free, Django’s wife. Django Unchained is a clear homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60’s, though they didn’t allow blood-filled violence back then.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are perfectly cast as the bounty hunters. Waltz’s performance and dialogue are by far the best thing in the film, though I also loved the music and the cinematography.
Django Unchained has been controversial because of its frequent (and I do mean frequent) use of the word ‘nigger’ and its overall portrayal of African Americans. I do not feel qualified to speak into that controversy and will leave that for a discussion that begins within the African American community. But to be honest, I find that controversy almost irrelevant compared to the overwhelmingly offensive nature of the film as a whole.
I hated Django Unchained and I am deeply disturbed that both the critics and the public love it. Telling is the following long list of glowing compliments for Django (keep in mind these are meant to be positive qualities): brazenly irresponsible, gruesome, appalling, horrifying, disreputable, deplorable, unwholesome, incendiary, out of its mind, corkscrewed, brutal, raunchy, over-the-top, exaggerated, numbing. I don’t argue with a single word here, but to my mind, most of these words are used to denounce a film, not praise it.
At least three times in the film, a scene of dismissive slaughter elicited huge laughs in the audience. This was, of course, intended, since this is a comedy, but somewhere a line needs to be drawn, a line related to a sense of decency and humanity. Tarantino is all about crossing such lines and I always thought I had a high tolerance for radical line-crossers (wishing I was one, no doubt). But this time, Tarantino crossed MY line and that, my friends, is saying something. One critic referred to Django as ethically serious and another said that Tarantino didn’t sacrifice his humanity or conscience to make the film. They must have been watching a different film. I was thoroughly disgusted. Django Unchained is full of what I just called ‘dismissive slaughter’, with one scene of senseless graphic violence after another. It’s an incredibly stupid (intelligence without a moral compass is just plain stupid to me) tale of revenge and blood and I could not uncover one shred of redeeming value. Quentin, I do believe in my heart that you are a good person and that you want to do good and that you think you are doing good, but please consider doing something more worthwhile with your genius, because this mess of dehumanization and ultra-violence can only make the earth a worse place to inhabit.
In recent reviews, I have compared violence that is difficult to watch with violence that is meant to be enjoyed. At least one film critic commented that Django’s violence is ugly and difficult to watch. If only that were true. It’s ugly all right, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was meant to entertain, not to disturb, and that is profoundly disturbing to me.
Django himself is an incredibly unsympathetic character. The only sympathetic character in the film is Schultz, and he’s a coldblooded killer. As for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (a plantation owner named Candie), all I will say is that it’s a waste of DiCaprio’s talent, because Candie is just bad news all around. And Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen? Brilliant and horrible at the same time. If the film had ended before our protagonists got to Tennessee (i.e. before DiCaprio and Jackson appeared), then I would have left feeling guilty but entertained. But more than half the film remained and I wish I hadn’t seen it.
If it were not for Waltz’s performance, the music and the cinematography, I would give Django Unchained exactly zero stars. But each of those deserves at least a half star on its own, so Django gets a whopping *+. My mug is down and the stuff that’s dripping from it is poisonous.