The Twelfth Man.
Django Unchained isn’t just a glorification of gratuitous violence and foul language, EVERYthing about Django is gratuitous. There’s an extra character in it, like the crowd noise as the invisible twelfth man in a football game, only in this case, it’s the frequent and persistent voice of worried studio execs and concerned friends trying to reign Quentin in. If you listen closely, you can hear it throughout the film.
“Hey, so uh, Quentin… maybe seven blood packets instead of twelve in this scene? Also, I’m not sure you need that sorta ‘gurgle-slurp’ noise after the slaver gets his head caved in.. but I’m sure you know best, haha!”
“Quentin, buddy! Hey, I know this is about slavery and stuff, but what if we just said the N-word, like, ten fewer times? I think people get it, you know? I mean, just a thought.”
“Yo, Q-Ball. I’m loving this, buddy, I really am, but… this shot of the underside of Django’s hairy nutsack? What if we just shot it from, say, from a little further away? Maybe we try one your way and one my way? I dunno, just spitballin’ here.”
“Hey, T-Squared, I know you like putting yourself in your own movies and stuff, but… I dunno, does your character really need an Australian accent in this one? I’m worried it’s going to come off… silly. But hey, one man’s opinion.”
To see Django Unchained is to watch Quentin Tarantino studiously ignore that voice. You know Tarantino could easily make a refined movie that every asthmatic, private school-educated film critic would love, just by dialing back his peccadilloes half a tick. The beauty of Tarantino is that he doesn’t want to, and that he doesn’t. As brilliant an audience manipulator as he is, he’s still that video store clerk who can’t spell, who just loves sticking it to the shrivs and poindexters who’ll never fully appreciate something this rowdy. He’s like a comedian who constantly hears people tell him that he’s clever enough to be funny without swearing. “Yeah, but I like swearing. That’s what’s funny to me.”
Django Unchained is messy, overstuffed, and overlong, in a way that suits it just perfectly.
It’s like witnessing a manic episode. Tarantino is so obviously fired up about his subject matter, his nuttiness so palpable, that watching it you feel like you’re being covered in ink splatter like the blood-stained cotton in the trailer as Tarantino scribbles away.
Of all the little bells and whistles and references that Tarantino stole from seventies B-movies, the best trick he took is the way he razzle dazzles you with silly schlock and then subtly makes you care about the characters before you’ve even realized it. The Trojan Smut Horse of Actual Caring. Tarantino plays you like a bass string in Django. It’s like he knows exactly how far he can pull your willful suspension of disbelief – your willful acceptance of silly, over-the-top story elements because they’re so much fun, almost to the point that you’re laughing at the movie – before you snap back to actually feeling the gravity of a situation. And it’s the noise of that constant vibration between the two that creates the music. (BOOM, metaphor). It goes from screwball slapstick to a scene of a slave getting torn apart by dogs that makes you genuinely naseous about the institution of slavery, all without missing a beat. Yes, you will laugh at people saying the n-word, but I bet you’ll also be more viscerally disgusted than you would be watching Amistad or Glory (and yo, isn’t that the point?). Tarantino can transcend schlock because he understands how it works.
Come for the schlocky lead-ins to scenes of surprising emotional gravity, stay for Fritz the Bowing Horse.
That Christoph Waltz’ dentist-cum-bounty-hunter character has a horse named Fritz that bows and winneighs when introduced is only one of the many laugh-out-loud moments in what’s probably Tarantino’s funniest film. And it’s not just comedy for comedy’s sake, though I’d still respect it if it was. When we look back at history, we tend to put evil up on this pedestal in a way that unfairly flatters people like Adolf Hitler and the proverbial Jim Crow. We remember that they’re evil, but forget that most of them were f*cking clowns. The Third Reich was a farce – half the reason it even succeeded as much as it did was that people thought Hitler and his buddies were such inept jackasses that his government would collapse on its own if they just waited it out. In the same way, the Antebellum South was a backwards, funhouse-mirror imitation of European aristocracy, which was already unbelievably f*cking silly in its own right, as only men wearing powdered wigs and painting moles on their faces could be. To rip Tarantino for pulling evil down from its dignified pedestal is absolutely wrong-headed from a political perspective, and even more wronger from the perspective of entertainment (because, and try to follow my argument here… it’s f*cking funny). The entire scene of Jonah Hill and his proto-Klan buddies trying to decide whether to wear hoods for a terror attack is just magical. The longer it goes on, the funnier it gets.
I like to make fun of Samuel Jackson taking ANY MOVIE by saying that he’d show up to your cousin’s bat mitsvah if you paid him four figures, but his performance in Django Unchained reminds you why your cousin would want him there. (Shoshanna got taste, yo). His portrayal of Calvin Candie’s aging house slave, Stephen, is equal parts southern preacher (repeating the last word of DiCaprio’s sentences and adding “MMM-HMM, THAT’S RIGHT!”, which was apparently Jackson’s idea) and John Witherspoon in Friday, which he pulls off, all while exuding legitimate menace. It’s his best performance in years, easily.
There’s a logical point at which you think Django Unchained should end, and then the movie goes on for another 40 minutes.
At one point, Django the character encounters Quentin Tarantino the actor, playing a cowboy who’s Australian. Why is Quentin Australian? Why is he in the movie? His acting is TERRIBLE! You can barely even tell he’s supposed to be Australian! My God, it makes no sense! I love that about it. This movie is Tarantino’s sandbox.
As much as I love Inglourious Basterds, Inglourious was overstuffed with talk. Characters taking five sentences to say things when two would’ve sufficed, in much the same way people talk when they’ve been doing cocaine. Django Unchained is overstuffed with ideas. It’s messy and silly and funny and strange, in much the same way I imagine Quentin Tarantino’s mind. It might be his masterpiece.