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Django Unchained (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Slavery was (and is) a horrible thing, and Django Unchained explores 1800s USA slavery with unblinking intensity, insightful juxtapositions, and indulgent relish. It’s this last bit that troubles me — and in a very similar way to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009): It asks us to roll and rumble in a muddy (and bloody) pool of luscious revenge. Most certainly, inhumane perpetrators have harsh justice as their due, yet it’s ugly when those who would deliver that justice also lose their humanity. That said, Django Unchained is not without its merits.

Django is a slave in the US south in the mid-1800s. He was separated from his wife, who is also a slave. Django is bought by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, who needs his help to find and capture his next dead-or-alive bounty. Schultz is quite anti-slavery, and he “proposes” that he will give Django freedom in exchange for Django’s help. Django and Schultz develop a strong friendship and mutual respect as they continue together in bounty hunting and then search for Django’s wife. Running time: 165 min.

American slavery has been called a holocaust — and for good reason. Thus, it is fitting that Tarantino would follow Inglorious Basterds with Django Unchained. Both slavery and the Jewish holocaust serve as ugly historical evidence of the depths to which humanity can go in dehumanizing another. Both are to be wholly despised and never forgotten and, in both films, Tarantino embodies a visceral reminder. For this, Django is valuable offering.

On the other hand, in the midst of helping us to maintain a vibrant hate for inhumane evils, Django, like Basterds, explores our response to such evil in a mostly one-sided way. Seeing this, an alert viewer will supply questions that the film itself, if viewed as mere entertainment, leaves unasked and unexplored: Where is the line between justice and revenge? If justice demands a death sentence, does it matter how or by whom that sentence is undertaken? If there is a beauty in justice, does revenge evoke that same beauty? Such implied questions are important, and to its credit, the film does explicitly raise important questions of its own: What appropriate pleasure is there in the fight against evil? In the pursuit of saving one caught by evil, when are deadly measures appropriate? Shall we consider that some people, rather than being primary perpetrators themselves, are merely taken up within an evil cultural system?

As usual for Tarantino, Django's filmcraft is mostly excellent — though perhaps its violence is overwrought. Jamie Foxx's intense portrayal of Django grounds the film in severe hatred of evil, while the humorous-but-serious formality of Christoph Waltz's Dr. Schultz overlays a tongue-in-cheek tone across the film. It is precisely this tone — reinforced by dark humor throughout — that may be a tip-off by the film that its joyful embrace of revenge ought not be taken seriously, and that it wants us to explore the questions it leaves unasked. Another tip-off may be that, in the film's portrayal of violence, the graphic detail takes on an unrealistic, comic-strip-style exaggeration, adding a dark element of the tongue-in-cheek.

As a slavery holocaust reminder, Django Unchained is worth the time, but only if you are ready and able to bring the unasked questions with you. Although I would not expect unthinking people to react to Django by themselves enacting deadly revenge (though it could influence unstable souls in that direction), I believe it very well could encourage tendencies toward spiteful, vitriolic, and vengeful attitudes that currently infect and pervade political discussions in the USA and elsewhere.

Make no mistake: Django Unchained has strong doses of cruel, graphic, bloody violence throughout. There is a slight bit of nudity and some indirect references to illicit sex. Frequent strong language, including slang words for African-American.

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
  • Leads: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
  • Cinematography: Robert Richardson
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    NOTE: Although Before viewing talks don't have spoilers, comments below MAY have spoilers
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