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I saw Django Unchained over a week ago, and it has taken this long for me to fully absorb the film. I keep going back and forth on whether or not I liked it. Truth be told, I am still uncertain. However, I think that it is fair to say that I was largely disappointed by it. I think, on the whole, it is a well-made film from a technical perspective, but it is really the narrative decisions that really fell flat for me.
Let’s talk about the good Django had to offer. First, the acting (mostly). The entire cast is completely into their roles. Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz is wonderfully watchable. His jovial attitude is completely infectious and Waltz well-earned that Oscar nomination. Also great is Leonardo DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candie. Like the best James Bond villains, DiCaprio delivers a performance which paints the guy as the slime he is, but also comes off as remarkably charming. Sam Jackson, as well, perfectly plays against type. And Kerry Washington provides the sweet innocence the film desperately needs.
Everyone largely works. The only weak link is, surprisingly, Jamie Foxx as the titular Django. While everyone else is into their characters with the appropriate delivery and accents of era, Foxx seems completely disinterested and acts as if he is from 2012. I do not know if this was a creative decision or not, but it does not work.
Time to move on to the bad. The pacing is awful. The first hours is a case of “when are they going to get to the fireworks factory?”. Then, when we finally get to the meat and potatoes of the story, it consists of people sitting around talking. It is not as gripping as it sounds. The tone is also all over the place. It goes from serious to overly comedic. Both work, just not together.
To make matter worse, it feels as if writer/director Quentin Tarantino wrote himself into a corner 4/5 of the way through the movie. It is as if he realized he gave his title character nothing to do. The last section of this over-long film consists of Django being a badass killing people.
Like his performer, Django is the film’s biggest stumbling block. He is not developed enough for me to really care about his journey. I get that he was a slave and wants revenge. That might work in real life, but for a fictional character, it makes his character a bit one-dimensional. I also feel that Django, in some ways, was written as a stereotypical “magical negro” with some trappings of a Mary Sue. I have gotten some heat over this opinion, but if you look at the movie, Django works as King’s assistant for most of it where he displays these amazing skills (perfect shot, perfect actor, everyone takes a liking to him immediately, etc) without any explanation or context on how he got these skills. It seems as if Tarantino realized what he did and tried to reverse it in the final thirty minutes.
This, of course, brings up the racial implications of Django Unchained. I have seen reviews heralding it as bringing a new light to slavery. But does it really do that? Here, Tarantino took slavery and turned it into a western/black exploitation hybrid. That strikes me as being disrespectful to those who were actually enslaved during this ugly time in United States history. I suppose, though, this is open to debate.
That is Django Unchained. I do not know. Maybe I need more time to absorb it. Perhaps a second viewing would help. I really wanted to like this movie, but it just did not work for me on the level it probably should have. And that is too bad.