A Writer Reviews: Django Unchained

It’s hard to talk about Django Unchained the way I want to talk about Django Unchained without bringing up rather big moments of the plot. So I’m going to hide it all behind a more tag. If you directly linked to this article and haven’t seen the movie, this is your cue to exit until you do.

Django_Unchained_PosterSeriously, last warning.

I feel so weird putting a spoiling warning in front of a discussion about Django Unchained, because it’s almost an impossible film to spoil. Seriously. If you expect something to happen in this movie, then it probably does happen. If you don’t expect something to happen in this movie, it probably won’t. The only surprise moment I had in the entire movie was Quentin Tarantino’s choice to speak with an Australian accent when he finally shows up at the beginning of the third act. In a word the film is formulaic.

Ah, formulaic.

That’s a tough word to put in a film review. Most films don’t shoot for being formulaic. They want to provide some twists and turns, a way of breaking out and doing something different. In the end, however, most films are formulaic. Which isn’t a bad thing. Not in and of itself. Story telling is something entirely different from breaking formulas, and it’s just as easy to tell a story within a rigid formula. Perhaps even easier, since a lot of the heavy lifting is already done for the audience. They know what to expect, and if a story-teller can hit those beats hard, giving the audience something to cheer for in those moments, it’s just as powerful of a moment as pulling the rug out from under the audience.

So, yes, Django Unchained is formulaic. The formula in particular is often called the hero’s journey. It tracks a character lifted up from humble roots and becoming bigger than he ever thought he could be by realizing he had the potential all along. It’s the path that most super hero origin stories take. It’s the path of Star Wars, both in the first film and in the trilogy as a whole. And it’s the path that Jamie Foxx’s Django takes through this movie. Let’s look at the beats, and let’s compare it to the original Star Wars movie as the hero’s journey I suspect most blog readers have seen.

We start with the lead character’s humble origins. Luke is the son of a moisture farmer. Django is a slave in last years before the Civil War. Both meet an older character with a specialized skill set, which makes King Schultz the Obi-Wan of Django Unchained. Tragedy propels the hero into his training. In Star Wars this happens on-screen when Luke’s aunt and uncle die, in Django we see this all in flashbacks as Django and Broomhilda are split up after an escape attempt. The mentor imparts a special skill, the Force or bounty hunting, and the hero shows an innate ability. Eventually the hero must infiltrate the land of evil, whether that’s a slave plantation or the Death Star, lose his mentor, fight his way out, then use his skills to turn around and destroy it from the inside. Hell, Django even ends up blowing up the big house at Candieland.

There you have it. Django Unchained is just Star Wars with guns instead of light sabers and Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Darth Vader. Oh, sure, the beats don’t line up perfectly. While Obi-Wan and Schultz both sacrifice themselves, Obi-Wan doesn’t succeed in taking Vader with him. Django doesn’t manage to leave Candieland of his own accord and return with a fighting force to take it down. Candie isn’t secretly Django’s father. Using the same formula does not yield identical stories.

Think of it, broadly, as a Mad Lib. The artful storyteller is the one finding interesting nouns and adjectives to put into the blanks, rather than just the word “butts.” This is the first part of where Django succeeds, Tarantino picks all the right words to fill into the hero’s journey Mad Lib. Part two is that part that cannot be created by formula: the characters. For a formulaic story to succeed, it needs interesting character. Characters have always been where Tarantino movies fly. Good characters, good dialogue, and then who cares how ground breaking or formulaic the linking narrative is. If one is to enjoy a movie like Django Unchained, one has to love Django and Schultz, love to hate Candie and Stephen, and give a damn about these people getting what they deserve.

Yup, there’s your writing lesson. Craft characters and dialogue as masterfully as Quentin Tarantino. Then we don’t care that we’ve seen this story before. The mentor has a heroic death, the bad guys get blown up, the good guy rides away with the girl at the end, and we’re happy.

Go formula!

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