Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)
It only just occurred to me, on sitting down to finally wrestle with writing a complete review of this, that it’s the first analysis of a Quentin Tarantino movie I’ve posted here. If you’ve perused the Movie Guide up above or if you’re a stalwart holdover from my LiveJournal days, you already know how I feel about the guy. For the uninitiated: he, uh, gripes me a little bit. In 2007 I wrote that I would relish the opportunity to hit him with a car; I think that reaction to Kill Bill Vol. 1 was a tad extreme, but I do come to any of his films at a disadvantage because something about his work sets me off. The easiest explanation I’ve mustered so far is that I find his work transparent; I can see the cogs in his head turning and how much his directing of films is his function of things that he believes will be totally awesome in the bro-y, detached way that someone might share their quickest routes through levels of Duke Nukem 3D with a couple of friends. I don’t know that any great cultural artifact has alienated me quite like Pulp Fiction. Seeing it in 1999 and again just recently, I found myself thoroughly flummoxed by the mythical praise attached to his terrible dialogue and flexing of forced, sub-cable TV machismo. But that’s the cogs in my head turning; it’s clearly so much a minority opinion that it hardly bears talking about, not least because it’s tied to my own worldview and it isn’t something I can very easily explain. You know how rubbing a balloon bothers some people? I get that from two things: coleslaw, and this guy.
I dodged Inglorious Basterds — probably soon to be tackled here — so if anything, Django Unchained continues a miniscule uptick in my esteem for the man begun by Death Proof, which I found somewhat less toxic than his earlier films. The best way to lay everything out here is that I fundamentally disagree with Tarantino’s visible ideas about movie storytelling and moviemaking generally. So while I in the end did not like Django Unchained much, it’s something of an achievement that I enjoyed myself through several parts of it — admired it, even. He’s still a douchey, smarmy fuck — but he has some gifts stowed away, the most important of them being that he understands at least one component of great narrative movies: catharsis. The celebrated catharsis in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill was unearned, despite the wild overlength of the latter and relative precision of the former. But there’s something to be said for an upturning of the traditional American slave narrative, even when it’s written by a white dude and thus carries a number of icky white-people-solve-racism implications.
Those implications are personified by Christoph Waltz in this film; yet again, I’m at a disadvantage having not seen Basterds yet because I understand Waltz is essentially the same charatcer in both films, a feature about which I cannot comment. Waltz plays a contract killer here with a Bogart-like cautious abolitionism; he picks up a resigned, quiet slave called Django to help him take out a few of his victims and senses, in typical western film parlance, a buried heroism in Django that comes out when the latter admits that he is hoping to recover and rescue his wife named, uh, Broomhilda from a slave compound in Mississippi called, uh, “Candieland.” Right. Whatever, Quent. The lengthy first act (forty minutes or so) introduces the characters, their viewpoints and attitudes, the bare premise of the picture, and the fact that Tarantino thinks Jim Croce is really rad; it’s deathly long, dull, loosely constructed, and comes across like a telefilm. Actually it feels like the circa-1994 pilot for a show that might have run for half a season on the WB, only with swearing and violence and stuff. The western genre was of course crying out to be given an overbaked redo by Tarantino (a guy who hates John Ford, by the way; I’m far from a passionate Ford disciple but christ almighty) because that’s not ever been done before, but for once he can’t fall back on genre tropes because there aren’t many stones left to turn over. Thus the film becomes about the thing it decides is fair game for a comic and wildly colorful exploration: slavery. It doesn’t flinch as much as you think it will, and that is its strength.
Is Spike Lee correct that Tarantino trivializes the suffering that backgrounds the black experience in America? Put it this way: he’s not exactly wrong, but he’s probably picking the wrong fight, and though there is something discomforting in the director’s treatment of Samuel Jackson’s conniving, stereotyped Uncle Tom character, Django has found overwhelming acceptance by black audiences for easily comprehensible reasons: you have to understand, Tarantino has a breath of populism here that cant be denied even outside the confines of his cult. People are meant to cheer at the end of this film, and they’re not wrong to do so. He may be wrong about lots of things, and slavery may be an easy thing to be right about in 2013, but his major virtue is that the idea of discussing it does not bother or stymie him. Even in the context of his and cameraman Robert Richardson’s garishly colored cartoon Old South, the shock of whippings and cruelty and fights to the death and attempted castrations and other assorted nastiness is unrelentingly laid bare without many hints of movie-world fetishism, including that which has plagued the director’s work in the past. (Even the tame Death Proof contained one of the most disgusting shots I’ve ever seen in a film, which got under my skin so much I don’t even want to describe it now.) He’s gained the wisdom to make the point that’s critical to the story and then cut away and explore reaction shots, if anything; it’s the same restraint that was so crucial to the functioning of a film like Hitchcock’s Frenzy — don’t wallow, in essence, but don’t hide and forgive.
The entire midsection of Django Unchained — from the Gone with the Wind title card announcing Mississippi to the moment when Leonardo DiCaprio’s cruel magnate Calvin Candie is killed in a suicidal fit of justified self-righteousness by Waltz’s Dr. Schultz, a quietly passionate man at the end of his rope — is the best thing Tarantino has ever directed, largely because it’s the longest stretch in his oeuvre that manages to remain restrained and somewhat serious. That gravity is due both to a genuine tension in the script and to the surprising dimension in the two key performances; Waltz has been duly praised in all quarters but I’m surprised to hear that Jamie Foxx’s work here has been so underreported. (Let us speak not of Leonardo DiCaprio, as one-note an actor here as ever; “stunt cast” him all you want, his skill set is still terribly limited.) He’s quite remarkable, stormy and brooding and with an air of legitimate enigma that actually suggests Tarantino knows more about creating a mythical hero than most of his contemporaries. That doesn’t mean he did an especially strong job writing or crafting the character of Django himself, just that he as a director and Foxx as an actor know how to cover up the holes in QT’s writing. As the situation gathers, sustains, builds, and deteriorates, with Broomhilda and Django’s eyes betraying their mutual adoration and Candie setting his guests up for humiliation, there’s palpable danger and fear; a fully dimensional world of plantation politics and sinister, closed-door dealmaking on the fates of living humans is conjured up and seems to surround us — all as the Southern heat simmers, Sam Jackson’s caricature casts his knowing glare upon the unknowns, and the drink continues to flow. It’s a startling and well-sustained moment.
Unfortunately, the last hour is typical Tarantino bullshit, but in a lot of ways it sort of has to be — it dismisses the opportunity for a fascinating downbeat ending, perhaps understandably, in favor of some very overextended silliness about thug Australians and a highly protracted ride into the sunset. Perhaps this would kill the mood less if it were more tightly edited. This is curious because Tarantino’s films have always been among Hollywood’s tightest and most brilliantly cut; Sally Menke arguably played a larger role in his success than any other collaborator. When she died unexpectedly in 2010, it left the director heartbroken; the consequences in Django Unchained are unmistakable — its long-winded nature obliterates the snappiness of Death Proof and the careful narrative juggling of Pulp Fiction, thus it’s absent of the sole virtue of most of his prior work. Fred Raskin is relatively inexperienced as a supervising editor and almost certainly can’t claim the long-running rapport and mutual trust that made the Menke partnership so important; her loss may prove as transformative in QT’s career as Susan Morse’s exit was to the Woody Allen camp.
But no amount of editing could probably have made the ending of the film better necessarily, just a little easier to get through. I’m no less uncomfortable with wallowing in bloodshed when it’s “righteous” or whatever, even though I get what’s fun about the badass revenge picture Tarantino has already made multiple times and is still obsessed with. It’s still juvenile wish fulfillment that betrays his inability to create believable characters and his infatuation with his own excess. It’s nice that a film dares to take on this subject matter, but it doesn’t really do so in a deeply incisive or challenging way. Moreover, by taking such care to retroactively and falsely balance the tyrannical brutality of slavery with florescent movie blood, it renders its potentially salient points as trite as a slasher flick, as though the filmmakers can’t resist the idea of making this all “fun.” You may have fun with this ballet dance of seriousness and silly vindiction; I don’t have fun this way, or at least I find that any remaining sense of fun is wiped out because the film gradually becomes so damn overbearing in all its rinse-and-repeat false-end nonsense structuring. Still, he had my attention for a while there, and I can be unreserved on this: Django Unchained is one of the most fascinating films of recent vintage to think about and debate, and that counts for more to me than the pervasive superficial influence Pulp Fiction had over the entire industry nearly twenty years ago. And that’s as nice as I feel like being tonght.