I watched Django Unchained last night. I have to admit I came to it reluctantly. I put it in our NetFlix DVD queue quite a while ago for a number of reasons: I loved Django (and really liked its surreal offspring, Sukiyaki Western Django); Unchained has Franco Nero (the original Django) in it and I appreciated the homage (and the eye candy); and it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie (no more need be said). However, after seeing Lee Daniels' The Butler this past summer, I worried that Django Unchained would be the same sort of heavy-handed, treacly, hectoring, sentimental mess, so I kept sliding it down in the queue. I should have known better. We are, after all, talking about Tarantino.
Django Unchained is utterly unsentimental, clear-eyed, and matter of fact. There is no one pontificating on the evils of slavery; there are no heroes trying to save the world. There is simply the reality of slavery, presented as an integral part of the movie, neither air-brushed out nor shoe-horned in; it just is. That presentation of slavery as part of the warp and woof of the time, as wallpaper, unremarkable yet always there in the smallest details, makes the horror of it impossible to put out of ones mind. This movie doesn’t lecture us; it doesn’t have to.
Among Tarantino’s movies, Django Unchained reminds me most of From Dusk Till Dawn. Both movies begin with violence as a way of living but human violence, in a sense understandable violence. Both then enter a world of horrific violence, utterly evil violence, a world beyond human comprehension: vampires in From Dusk, slavery in Unchained. And both have truly remarkable bloodbaths, although that hardly distinguishes them among Tarantino’s movies.
Django Unchained is both an astonishingly powerful movie and a surprisingly good one. I can’t imagine Tarantino is going to win any serious awards for this film but he should.