My husband and I usually agree on movies.  We don’t have exactly the same tastes, but when we find a movie we both want to see, we generally agree on whether it was bad or good, and why.  Last night was an exception, though.  We watched Django Unchained (2012), and he liked it, but I sure didn’t.


Disclaimer:  I was only halfway paying attention for the first half of the movie.  But that was actually one of the problems we both thought the movie had: the first half was a thousandfold more entertaining, even while I wasn’t even watching some of it, than the second half, which I saw all of.  When King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) died, the movie missed him sorely, and I think it lost any particular reason for going on, after that point.

I had a really, really hard time dealing with a hero who was indistinguishable from the villains:  he had no more mercy, conscience, or humanity than the bad guys.  When he got his revenge, was just as brutal and cruel as his captors, just as hungry to torture.  (And it’s not as this is just one of those conscienceless gore and action movies.  Schultz has clearly struggled, and has fashioned his own set of rules about what is and is not acceptable; and even still, he has those ghastly flashbacks.  Django, however, is just a machine.)

My husband says that this is entirely typical of a spaghetti western.  The hero is not expected to undergo any character development, or to have any evident interior life.  He says that all the “splut, splat, gloosh” bullet wounds are an affectionate mocking of Sam Peckinpah,* and I can see that; but I don’t know how you tell the difference, in a Tarantino movie, between making an homage and just hopping on someone else’s train and riding it like a fool.

I get that it’s just telling a story, and doing a gorgeous, stylish recreation of a particular American genre of movie.  Not my favorite kind of movie, but I am okay with that.  All right, so if that’s all it’s trying to be, then how are we supposed to think about the fact that it’s a slavery revenge fantasy?  How is it not racist and exploitative to take a black couple and drop them into a genre where they don’t belong?  It’s like, “Hey, I’m going to re-tell the Iliad, except in my movie, the Trojans are all cats!”   Why would you do that?  American slavery is one of those things that, if you’re going to make it a major theme in your story, you absolutely have to address some of the issues around it:  what does it mean to be free, what does it mean to be cruel, what does it mean to be something.  This movie doesn’t do any of that.  It simply takes the spaghetti western and jazzes it up by inserting black slaves into the narrative.

Tarantino did the same thing in Inglourious Basterds, which I reviewed here:  he had Jews exacting a bloody revenge on the Nazis, but none of the Jews were discernibly Jewish.  They didn’t look Jewish, they didn’t talk Jewish, they didn’t think Jewish, they didn’t respond Jewish.  They were just Jews plopped into a revenge fantasy.  I can’t decide if that’s offensive or just stupid.  Either way, it’s lazy.

There is another problem with Django which is similar to a problem in Basterds:  the lavish revenge fantasy is supposed to satisfy some deep desire in your soul for certain wrongs to be righted.  So we watch the black man whip the white, and the slaves wrench their freedom away from their cruel captors, and the husband and wife reunited, and you see foulness and corruption getting what’s coming to them.  But the whole time, I’m thinking, “And this is exactly the opposite of what happened.”  Even the pagan and petty part of your soul is not satisfied by the fantasy playing out on the screen, because it’s so thoroughly false.

I think the vengeance could have been satisfying (again, to some primitive part of your psyche, at least) if there had been some attempt to make Django and Hilda into actual characters, who had some sort of individual story.  But they don’t.  What is their future supposed to be?  They’re just going to ride off and buy a house in upstate New York or something, and everybody will just shrug off the burning rubble and heaps of torn up bodies?

That being said, there were some good scenes.  The part where the posse can’t see through their white hoods, even though one guy’s wife spent all day making them, was pretty funny — almost worthy of Mel Brooks.  I liked the fact that there was really no exploitation of women in the movie.  They could have eroticized slavery, but they didn’t.  And I enjoyed watching a movie where the man has to go rescue his wife, and he does, the end.  When’s the last time any movie allowed itself to tell that story?

Probably what this comes down to is that I just don’t get this movie.  I haven’t seen a lot of spaghetti westerns, and I suppose I wouldn’t get them, either.  And I don’t feel that my life is especially impoverished because of that.

I’m still waiting for Tarantino to get it together.  This movie didn’t have his pseud0-intellectual, tawdry, masturbatory quirks stinking the whole film up.  He had a slightly more coherent vision than usual, and just told the damn story, and clearly let someone edit it for him.  I guess I hope he still keeps making movies, because he’s getting closer to doing something great.  But he ain’t there yet.

*My introduction to Sam Peckinpah came when my husband and I were first married, back when people still had to drive to the store to rent a movie.  I was pregnant and queasy and way too tired to go out in the evening, so I asked my husband to go pick out something for us to watch.  I said that I really didn’t care what it was, as long as it wasn’t too violent.  He was gone a long, long time.  And then he came home with The Wild Bunch.

I’m not saying I’m still mad at my husband for this, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Sam Peckinpah.


  1. Westerns and Hollywood war movies are not my genres. For the ones mentioned above I only viewed trailers. My preference for war films are solely those created by actual combat photographers on actual battlefields. Everything else smacks of phoniness.

  2. I have never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino, and thus avoid his movies, so I have nothing substantial to add to the discussion. However, I did want to say that your tag “a disturbing trend in the overuse of the word “masturbatory” ” is pure awesome.

  3. I I have no idea why, but I really have a hard time enjoying films at home. The fact that I was in a theater to see Jango was a big advantage. I didn’t expect to like it, but when my oldest sons came home glowing, and even their sister had a pleasant smile on her face, I knew there was hope for a Saturday date night, in which I could also be a good, Catholic giver. I was prepared to sit there and cover my eyes. The fact that I only needed to do that a couple of times was a pleasant surprise. My husband would look over at me with concern when the wounds inflicted made over- the-top squishing and splatting noises, but I caught on that the movie was making fun of itself, and that there was a kind of indictment in the bloodshed. Who spurts out gallons and gallons of blood, when they are shot in the stomach? Rather than get into a full analysis of why I liked it, here were a few things that I enjoyed about the film:
    1. The methodical demeanor of the German-Jewish bounty hunter, and his clipped German-Jewish accent
    2. Jango’s choice of apparel when given license
    3 The KKK hoods. OMGosh, so funny.
    4. The unveiling of good manners and dress, when they are self serving
    (sigh, yes, I was somewhat delighted to see Mr. Candy’s awful sister blown across the room) Mr. Candy was as thoroughly dis likeable and played brilliantly by (oh my gosh his name slips my mind!)
    5. The silliness of the legend of Brunhilda/ the German speaking maid
    6 The exposure of humans willing to discriminate against their own, and pander to monsters when position, power and *precedent* blinds the conscience. (Isn’t this how the devil always tempts stupid humans?)
    7. The fact that Jango, while torn by hate, could still feel more compassion than his meticulous teacher, in not wanting to shoot a man in front of his young son.
    8. I never got bored, or was tempted to fall asleep
    I just saw The Great Gatsby. It dazzled the senses on the big screen, so it was worth seeing, but I don’t think a smaller screen would do it for me.
    Just saw Looper from Redbox and fell asleep midway.

  4. So that’s near the top of the list of movies I’ll never see, not even by myself. To me, no matter how identified they may have become with the genre itself, Spaghetti Westerns are really no kind of Western at all.

  5. I watched The Wild Bunch again this past year and it was about half as horrifying as the first time I ever saw it. That first one was in college, where I was coming from a sheltered home with almost no access to films above a PG rating…into a Film Studies major. The unit on Gangster films gave me fricking nightmares for weeks. But TWB was like a living nightmare. I was sick when it ended. Now, as a seasoned film-watcher (ha) and closing in on middle age I just felt sad and tired. I think Peckinpah is so talented. But if I never see that movie again I don’t mind. (And I am one of those watch-over-and-over types.)

    Django Unchained? I am debating whether to see it. I think maybe I just like spaghetti westerns that have Clint Eastwood in them, b/c he can do no wrong in a western; the rest of them I just tolerate in my respect for genre. The moral relativism is too much, and Tarantino doing “in honor of” the s.w. seems even less appealing.

    I am with you in the hope that Mr. Tarantino will finally finish growing up so he can give us something really great.

    • Yeah, I used to be MUCH much more sensitive to blood and gore and creepiness than I am now. Probably The Wild Bunch wouldn’t get to me as much now (especially since I’m not pregnant!) – but I don’t have any particular desire to find out.

  6. Django is my favorite Tarantino movie and I’ve liked all his movies. I don’t think django was like a machine. He wasn’t just as willing to torture or kill. He had qualms about killing the man in front of his son. The point of a Tarantino movie isn’t the characters anyway, not in any deep emotional girlie way, but snazzy dialogue, cool action, smart scenes, atmosphere, genre, music etc. This one is my fave because it is by far the funniest and I loved Dr Shultz he has a bit of character, he’s cool and he’s there to make a point. The revenge stuff isn’t meant to be taken seriously like you were taking it. It isn’t even meant to be a fantasy for people it’s just supposed to make a point against slavery in a fun way just like it was with the Nazis. I mean if you want to see some sentimental movie go watch Spielberg s Lincoln or schindler s list.

  7. If that is the stock response thing when you just don’t want to bother responding because you think the post is just that stupid or wrong, it’s condescending and insulting. if that’s not what you’re doing my apologies. Btw how is it not racist to go on and on about how Jews should look and act and talk in a film? Just wondering.

    • I’m sorry, I lost my internet connection because of a thunderstorm here. It just came back on again. I will be honest, I didn’t think you gave me all that much to respond to! Your point seemed to be “it was a fun movie and I liked it.” Am I missing something?

      Here is a fuller response, though: I don’t mind violence, in general, and I don’t generally watch girly movies (although I think there is a difference between “girly” movies and “girlie” movies, although I could be wrong!). What I have a problem with is the way Tarantino winks and smirks at the audience, implying that there is Something Going On Here, when in fact there is not.

      Re: the Jews: I’m not saying they should be going “oy oy oy” and having big noses or something. I’m saying that if you’re going to make your whole movie about Jews doing something as Jews, they ought to be discernibly Jewish in some way. You ought to be able to tell them apart from, say, Italians or Swedes. There’s nothing racist about bringing out the things that make certain cultures unique. That’s what makes a story interesting (and the lack of that in IG make the story, in my view, wanting and gimmicky).

        • It’s just kinda funny, Becca, because – I don’t know if you’ve ever read my posts before, but (a) I often get scolded for recommending movies with all kinds of heathen trash with all kinds of violence and unwholesomeness, and (b) I am Jewish. So, there you go.

  8. I’ve been following you lately, but not for that long. I wasn’t implying you’re a racist. I was just trying to say it isn’t racist either to have Jews in a movie who don’t ‘act Jewish’. I’m not Jewish, so maybe that is a big deal? I don’t know. I’ve watched it with a lot of different people and no one ever brought that up about the movie and it never crossed my mind either. They said they were Jews…they didn’t seem non Jewish looking to me…the one guy talked with a new york accent and talked about the Yankees or whatever…were they supposed to have a Seder at some point during all the Nazi killing? The Jewish characters didn’t really even have a lot of dialogue, they were kind of a force in the background more than anything…like a shadow of fear for the Nazis.

    My point was not that ‘it’s a fun movie and I liked it’. My point was that you were wanting it to be a non-Tarantino movie. I don’t think that’s really a fair way to criticize a movie. I’m not gonna go to a Spielberg movie for instance (I just watched Lincoln so that’s why I keep saying that as an example) and say, I don’t like all those Spielberg elements and act like it’s a fair criticism because if you’re going into the movie with that frame of mind then you should just skip it. I wouldn’t say for instance…that part where the black lady came up to Mr. Lincoln and sappily talked to him about slavery and how her son died fighting in the civil war and say, well that’s just so sentimental and plus IT’S RACIST. That lady had no character, she was just there to be the sentimental black character who talked to ole Honest Abe…what is she going to do after the war? No, that’s what Spielberg does. That’s how he makes his points that he wants to make. By sentimentalizing it. Tarantino makes the points he wants to make in a different way.

    I don’t think shouting racism at Tarantino and saying he just wants to jazz something up by putting black people in his movie is fair at all.

    Just as an aside, one Catholic element that’s easily missed in it at one point when Hildie was being whipped, the overseer was spouting bible passages and Hildie had a rosary wrapped around her wrist. I thought that was kind of neat.

    Anyway, thanks for the response.


    • Well, I haven’t seen Lincoln, so I can’t really respond to your reactions about that. I guess the problem here is that we have different ideas about criticism. To me, it’s st jufun to talk about why I did or did not like a movie. I might very well talk about why I didn’t like a Spielberg movie for it’s Spielbergian elements, because that’s interesting.

      I’m not trying to organize a boycott against Django Unchained when I talk about what I perceive as its flaws; I’m just discussing it. I like some of Tarantino’s movies more than others, and I obviously think he’s interesting enough to keep going back; but, as someone else said, I guess I’m watching to see if he’s grown up yet.

      (Pay no attention to Gary, he’s just an alligator. I don’t think Ranger Ted even lets them watch movies.)

    • There has been some criticism of Tarantino that he, a privileged white guy (heh, I almost called him a kid) making a “black revenge” film. I don’t know. Husband and I had a discussion about it and I took the side of “he should just butt out for the sake of propriety” and H took “art is art” but I remain unconvinced either way. A dear friend of man, very thoughtful guy, who is black, liked it. And in the end I decided it is probably not my place, anyway, to angst heavily over whether Tarantino is relying on white privilege or not to make his movie.

      • …by bringing up that my friend liked it, I am saying that I feel that he would have discussed problematic things with racial stuff, if he had felt they were serious. I could be wrong about that, too, though.

  9. I wasn’t sure who Tarantino is so i clicked on the link and was not little stoked to see that Leonardo starred in this but that was enough for me. I must be the only person who thinks this kid cannot act.

  10. I showed this to my husband last night, and in talking about it realized what it is that I, personally, find appealing in Tarantino movies: he does “revenge fantasy” really well. I see the “winks and smirks” as a goofy way to make it perfectly, absolutely clear that what you are seeing has *no* bearing on the real world. In the way that wartime audiences loved the escape of watching Shirley Temple movies, I think some people need a way to escape the daily crush of taking it from The Man or, you know, whatever. I am passive to a fault, and rarely show anger or aggression – I think this is why I love Tarantino so much. For people who are either not tempted to act violently at all (me), or who have been born with a wild-west spirit that they daily have to fight against (my husband), it’s a release. A fantasy in the healthy sense, something that lifts the pressure of life without ever leading you to believe it could really happen. I like Tarantino in the way I like stories about elves: it’s fun, and unlike romantic comedies or more realistic movies, it doesn’t set up any expectations for real life.

  11. Rebecca, did you just compare Quentin Tarantino films to Shirley Temple movies and stories about elves? Now, *that* is entertaining.

  12. Wow this one stirred up a lotta cranky. Suprising. But then again so did one on (shhh! I won’t mention his name) that artist with the light.

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