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Tarantino could have taken more risks in "Django Unchained"

Contributing Writer

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Updated: Monday, January 7, 2013 17:01

The last scene in “Django Unchained” (no spoilers, I promise) felt tone-deaf to me; it threw away any semblance of a point the movie had been trying to make. I wondered if Quentin Tarantino had begun parodying his own movies.

If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

Before I get into why the ending left me unsettled, I should say I had a lot of fun with “Unchained”; it almost tops “Kill Bill” in terms of absurd and enjoyable violence.

It matches “Inglourious Basterds” when it comes to building tension through uncomfortably long scenes. You know someone’s about to snap, but director Quentin Tarantino wants you to squirm for just a moment longer before letting you go.

In short, “Unchained” is classic Tarantino.

Better yet, Tarantino knows he not only has to earn violence, but use it well. Instead of focusing on how violent the gunfights are, he cuts between action shots without focusing on the blood and guts.

The approach gives the action more impact without seeming obsessed with death.

He also matches the violence with entertaining performances from Christopher Waltz (who plays Dr. King Schultz) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie). The frequent diatribes of and battle of wits between these two characters in particular are wildly entertaining.

But as much as I enjoyed the ride, there’s the nagging conflict I mentioned earlier. The movie begins by placing title character Django (Jamie Foxx) among a group of black slaves bound by chains, led by a couple of men who intend to sell them.

He’s eventually freed by Dr. Schultz, and the two begin a journey to free Django’s estranged wife (Kerry Washington) from a plantation called Candieland, named after its owner, Calvin Candie.

The premise means well, but the plot ends up being one of the safest tales of black empowerment put on film. The black main character is liberated and trained to kill by a white man to save a damsel in distress from a villain who most everyone in a given audience can agree is evil.

The bad guy is white, but so is one of the good guys! What a great way to avoid awkward conversations.

Racism is brought up several times (including a scene at a dinner table where DiCaprio could not have been more menacing), but never addressed or discussed in a way that makes it feel relevant. Because the whole racism thing is behind us now, right?
But why even bother criticizing a Tarantino movie for its crassness, you might ask? Because Tarantino told The Daily Telegraph that he wanted “to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery... [to]  deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it.”

Which is why that last scene felt so tone-deaf; Tarantino brings up the topic of racism, but he doesn’t deal with it. He poses the question, but doesn’t provide an answer or make a statement.

His signature irreverence serves “Django Unchained” well, and despite my unease I enjoyed the film, but I can’t help but wish Tarantino had taken the difficult steps that would’ve made “Unchained” and extraordinary film instead of just enjoyable.

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