The roomies and I went to see Django Unchained last weekend. I was really looking forward to it because I adored Inglorious Basterds and I was curious to see what Tarantino would do with the antebellum South. I went into it a little worried I’d wind up offended – between dealing with slavery and pitfalls there, and my general touchiness about people who don’t get the South making stupid jokes, there was lots of potential – but that’s not what wound up happening. Instead, I got bored. Which was weird. So I spent a while trying to figure out why I got bored.
Django Unchained plays with a lot of the same formula at use in Inglorious Basterds – you’ve got clear good guys and bad guys, and the good guys go about being good guys by doing really bad things to the bad guys, all in a fantastical setting that looks like the historical one where the movie is set. Where Inglorious Basterds worked for me as a joyful romp through convincigly faux Nazi-occupied Europe, Django Unchained hit an uncanny valley where it looked enough like the actual antebellum South that I tripped all over the historical inaccuracies that were part of the ways it was meant to be fantastical.
For example, there’s a long scene featuring the KKK, well before Reconstruction. That makes my history senses itch, but I can roll with it for a good movie. Except that in this case, the KKK was there to set up the longest running version of the oldest KKK joke out there, i.e. hoods make it hard to see. Dear Everybody: The KKK is so very pompously, ridiculously absurd that if you spend 10 minutes researching it on Wikipedia, YOU WILL FIND SOMETHING BETTER THAN THE HOODS TO PICK ON. Seriously. Check out the rank system if you don’t believe me.
I think the primary reason Django Unchained failed – weak jokes aside – has to do with the biggest structural difference between it and Basterds: we see the victims. Basterds never shows you the concentration camps. In fact, after the opening scene, we never see a “civilian.” Shoshana is the closest we come, but her plot is more or less about how she’s a player in the fight. On the other hand, Django is full of the vicitms. Consequently, we spend a lot of time watching our heroes cringing while they witness the bad guys being bad, which hugely undercuts the unhinged glee of punishing the bad guys.
I have no idea how you successfully set a slave-revenge flick in the antebellum South without showing the victims you’re avenging, or how you do show the victims without then having to let your heroes pause to feel uncomfortable with it. Clearly, neither did Tarantino. Which was a problem for this movie. And, at least as far as my overall enjoyment of the movie goes, a fatal one.
There’s lots of fodder for talking about “stuff” in this movie, and all of the acting was fantastic. But if you’re hoping for the same twisted glee Inglorious Basterds delivered, you’ll be let down.