Django Unchained: Tarantino, the N-word, and the Menke factor

Django Unchained

You can tell a lot about how good or bad a movie is by what it makes you want to do immediately after watching it. For example, Rocky Balboa makes me want to run up a flight of steps without getting winded; Dawn of the Dead makes me want to become more proficient with a firearm; Strange Brew makes me want to drink more beer. That sort of thing. In the case of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, Django Unchained, the prevailing desire I was left with was to re-watch Inglourious Basterds. Considering that Basterds is far from Tarantino’s best flick, I think that says a lot about Django. And not all of it is good.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Django Unchained is a good movie. In fact, if it weren’t directed by a dude named Quentin I’d probably think the director was the next best thing to the man himself, an up-and-comer with true talent. But when you compare it to what Tarantino has shown himself capable of in the past – truly great movies like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1 – it’s simply not up to snuff. What’s really tragic about this is that it comes so close, but misses the mark. There are hints of greatness all throughout the movie. Unfortunately, it’s got one too many flaws to secure its awesomeness. At least in my book.

First of all, it’s too damn long. At almost three hours with no intermission, Django can be an exercise in pain tolerance for those with small bladders and a desire not to miss a thing. But even for those who can hold their water and who do love great movies that go on forever and a day (think the first two Godfather movies, or Dances with Wolves, or even the aforementioned Basterds, all of which could have gone on for another couple of hours with no complaints from me) Django may still present a major challenge simply due to its length. I heard one reviewer describe it by saying that at some point in the movie, she became acutely aware of the passage of time. This is just as good a way to describe it as any. When that happens, it can have an incredible jarring effect on your enjoyment of a movie. For me, this took place at around the 2.5 hour mark.

My second problem with the movie was that I found the plot to be a bit convoluted. Not to begin with, but later on somewhere deep into the second hour or early into the third. The basic plot of the movie is straightforward: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter who enlists the help of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him find some bad guys he’s looking for. Once Django’s done his part, Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife from her slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that may be the first truly interesting thing he’s done since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Midway to getting from point A to point C, Django and Schultz decide to go “undercover” as a couple of guys shopping around for a Mandingo fighter as a roundabout way of getting an audience with Candie. This is the point where things start to get a bit hard to follow, as the details of the ruse are never fully revealed to the audience until things are actually playing out. We’re not talking confusion on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but at some point I got the distinct impression that Django had gone off the rails.

Is this a sign that Tarantino is starting to lose his touch? Or is it the Sally Menke factor? Up until her death in 2010, Menke had been Tarantino’s one and only film editor. Next to the writer and director of a movie, the film editor is the most important person in the creative chain. Django is the first movie Tarantino has made without Menke, and it’s possible that the missing element here is her guiding hand. Tarantino has called Menke his “greatest collaborator” – therefore it’s not entirely out of the question to conceive of Menke as having been the real visionary of the two. If this is the case, it doesn’t bode well for Tarantino’s future movies. Not unless he can find someone that he’s really able to gel with as creatively as he did with Menke.

Ultimately, what really saves Django Unchained are the performances by its cast. Jamie Foxx is excellent as the strong, silent, and sometimes unsure titular hero. But it’s Christoph Waltz who truly rescues the movie from falling too far into the trough of mediocrity. This guy is so interesting to watch that it makes you wonder what the movie would have been without him. It also makes you appreciate what a single brilliant performance can do for a movie, and it may even cause you to wonder: What will Tarantino do if Waltz isn’t available for his next movie?

According to reports, Django Unchained is getting a lot of attention due to its controversial nature. The use of the N-word is rampant throughout – but then what do you expect from a movie that deals with slavery during the late 1850s? Also, it’s a Tarantino movie. If you ask me, people like Spike Lee who have decided to boycott the movie based on the repeated use of this word have picked the wrong Tarantino flick to go after (I give you the “dead ni**** storage” scene from Pulp Fiction). This is actually the very first Tarantino movie where the use of the N-word isn’t gratuitous, but necessary to the telling of the story – and I think that the editing out of such offensive racial epithets would have been an even greater insult, just as downplaying the indignities and physical abuse that many slaves suffered would have been an insult to the memory of those who experienced it.

If there’s one thing that Django Unchained has going for it (aside from Waltz), it’s this: the movie succeeds in conveying the brutality of slavery without getting heavy handed or preachy. To his credit, Quentin Tarantino has crafted a movie that’s both entertaining and socially educational, if not overly simplistic and long. Even though it’s not in the same league as his best movies, that’s still not a bad accomplishment for a junior high dropout who never even sat through US History class.

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