I had one of my more memorable theater experiences with Django Unchained, but not in a good way. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the alarms on the sides of the theater started to go off. This was followed by a pre-recorded warning, stating that there was an emergency in the theater and everyone would need to evacuate the building. This is going to sound perhaps overdramatic and irrational, but whether it was because of all the sensitivity surrounding the recent shootings or just the general nature of the film’s content, there was, if only for a split second, the thought that “Well, who knows what’s going to happen. Fuck, I may die here today.” Of course, it didn’t take long for the theater employees to ensure everyone that it was a false alarm, and the film started back up again about 10 minutes after the alarm first went off. I write this because I’d be lying if I said it didn’t unnerve me a little bit, and that I wasn’t in a generally less receptive mood for the final third of the film. I’ve spent the last few days debating with myself whether my problems with the film are directly related to this theater experience, or if I would have thought the same thing even if my viewing of the film had been smoother.
Some mild spoilers to follow for those who haven’t seen it yet.
In the end, completely putting aside my theater experience, I feel there is an underlying level of gleeful sadism in the film that brought down the overall experience for me, particularly in the final 25-30 minutes or so. It’s in this final 25-30 minutes when the film wears out its welcome and I lost all patience with it. Almost immediately after the deaths of two major characters, the film switches gears and morphs from being primarily a western into a full-on exploitation, or blaxploitation, film. There’s a shootout that’s so over-the-top that it feels like the climax/finale of the film, but then the film continues on for another 20 minutes or so in the same manner, without really offering much of anything apart from a terrible Tarantino cameo and more cartoon bloodshed.*
I don’t really have a problem with cartoon bloodshed by itself, but there is the sense throughout this final section of the film that we as the viewer are supposed to revel in the carnage. The film presents sadistic acts early on from the villains, which are genuinely disturbing and are meant to be genuinely disturbing, without a trace of comedy to them. But then the film presents a series of sadistic acts by the hero, and we’re suddenly supposed to root along with him and cheer enthusiastically when he shoots a defenseless character in the kneecaps or blows away a defenseless woman. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I found myself getting sick and uncomfortable with what was happening onscreen. Now, there is the possibility that I’m not giving Tarantino enough credit, and that the film, by presenting these constant sadistic acts, is somehow making a comment on the presence of sadism in the movies. I’m sure there could be a well-reasoned argument for that perspective, but I’m not sure I’d buy it. Between the copious amounts of blood, the “cool” songs on the soundtrack, the many jokes centered around the suffering and deaths of Django’s targets, and one of the closing shots of Django literally turning towards the camera with a smug grin on his face, the point of these scenes doesn’t seem to go beyond “Let’s have some fun with Django as he goes on his bloody rampage!” To me it came across as juvenile and tasteless.
The terrible ending scenes would be even more disappointing if the rest of the film echoed the high quality of Tarantino’s best work, but for the most part this isn’t the case. Part of the reason for this is that, after keeping his indulgences mostly in check with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has reverted back to the obnoxious “look at me!” directorial showboating that was present in his worst efforts. So we get the soundtrack that is frequently calling attention to itself, we get the constant whip zooms, we get the ludicrous bloodletting, we get the random text scrolls when none had been used before, we get the one-joke set-pieces that are dragged out forever with no relevance to the main narrative, and we get the distracting cameos, this time from Jonah Hill and, of course, Tarantino himself. There are undeniably some strong moments in Django Unchained, particularly when Foxx and Waltz, and later Dicaprio, are sharing the screen together, and there is always a certain joy in hearing that dialogue that only Tarantino can write. Samuel L. Jackson too plays what may be the most interesting and complex character in the film. But there’s nothing here quite on the same level as the opening interrogation scene or the basement bar scene from Inglourious Basterds, and there’s very little here that I would hold up as on par with the best scenes from his best works. In the end, the entire production feels a little like an assembly of bits from previous Tarantino films, done less effectively. We’ve already seen the cartoon bloodshed in the Kill Bill films. We’ve already seen the homage to the exploitation genre in Death Proof, and to a lesser extent the blaxpoiltation genre in Jackie Brown. What we haven’t seen before is the almost pornographic display of violence and sadism in this film, and I can’t shrug it off and pretend I’m comfortable with it. A better film could have been made out of this material, one with a 2-hour running length with the entire ending truncated. Instead, what you get is an overlong and ill-disciplined mess with glimpses of greatness but also problematic elements in the closing moments that leave behind a sour taste to the overall production.
*On a side note, if there is any film this year that truly deserved the “adults only” NC-17 rating, it’s this one. William Friedkin’s Killer Joe got slapped with the more restrictive rating, and even though the content in that film was fairly extreme, Django Unchained pushes it much further. I hate walking out of a movie like this and seeing young children walking out with their parents.