Is Django Unchained over the top? Yes, of course it is. It’s a Quentin Tarantino picture. But is “over the top” a bad thing in the first place? I’d say no. Let’s look at the phrase’s origins. It dates from World War I and originally meant climbing out of the relative safety of the trenches to face the enemy head-on. While I’m not too sure who the enemy is in this case — except maybe the often rather dreary and parochial state of film — I’d be hard pressed not to say that Tarantino long ago (for better or worse) climbed out of the trenches to tackle his own vision of what a movie should be. Yes, that vision is movie geek — or maybe just plain 20th century pop culture geek — to the max. And, no, it doesn’t always work. In the case of Django Unchained — for me at least — it works and then some. Coming at the end of awards season with its procession of heavily respectable movies, I found Django Unchained a bracing dose of unrespectable delight. For pure movie enjoyment — or movie geek (I plead guilty) enjoyment, if you insist — I hadn’t had this much plain fun in a while. And in some ways, the film offers a bit more than that.
Stripped of all its quirks, outrages and digressions — which are the real reason to see the film — Django Unchained is a basic revenge fantasy. That’s to say, it’s your basic Tarantino picture in that regard. It’s the story of an ex-slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), teaming up with German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). It turns into an attempt to get Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), back from decadent plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). That’s pretty much it, but that hardly describes this expansive film. What really counts here is the tone of it all, the (often bitter) humor and Tarantino’s increasing mastery of film technique — a mastery that has blessedly made him not one whit less outrageous or (yes) self-indulgent. I don’t consider the term “self-indulgent” a pejorative one — most great art is self-indulgent. But as an approach, it is tricky and doesn’t always pay off (Death Proof, anyone?). Here, it does — in part due to the filmmaker’s sprawling vision of a spaghetti western/exploitation picture of his own.
Tarantino establishes what he’s up to from the start with the mid-1970s Columbia logo, the zoom shots (intelligently limited), the silly “Django” song from the 1966 film Django, etc. No sooner has the 1858 story itself started than we find Dr. King Schultz agreeing to a price for Django by crying, “Sold American!” — a gag probably lifted from Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) and derived from the 1930s Lucky Strike (American Tobacco Co.) tobacco auctioneer ads that ended with “Sold American.” By now, it should be clear that the movie has been stylized out of any resemblance to normal historical authenticity. I’d think that goes without saying from a guy whose last picture showed Adolf Hitler machine-gunned to death in a blazing movie theater, but then probably not since all sorts of debate has cropped up about whether “Mandingo fighting” ever existed and if the use of the “N-word” is historically accurate. I’m not sure the first matters (it works in Tarantino’s fantasia concept) and the second — while likely having as much to do with Blazing Saddles (1974) as anything else — can be answered by reading Huckleberry Finn.
The truth is that Tarantino is after a different kind of realism — a visceral, hyperrealism built on shocking us into paying attention, while amusing us with dark humor and the (probably not far from accurate) idea that evil is often stupid and buffoon-like. Sure, it’s funny — in a Blazing Saddles manner — to encounter a generally inept band of would-be Klansmen endlessly bitching about not being able to see out of the eye-holes of their hoods, but I’m not convinced that it’s even slightly far-fetched. None of this means that the film isn’t going to offend — even appall — some people, and that’s not a bad thing. Similarly, I doubt even the geekiest geek will get all the movie references. Oh, things like the screen-high word “MISSISSIPPI” moving across the screen like the opening credit on Gone With the Wind is pretty obvious, but a lot of it is more esoteric. The trick is that the film works whether or not you get all the references — though it probably works on a different level if you do. I didn’t get all of them by any means, but I still had a great time and am calling it a must-see. Will it upset you? Possibly, but that’s part of the point. Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7