Django Unchained (2012)

A few years ago, I wrote the following:

“[Inglourious Basterds] is certainly Quentin Tarantino’s most assured film, the one that finally lifts him above the class of hipster homage titillator…More than any other director, Tarantino has always made movies that are as much about movies as they are about their putative subjects…Who else would dare to rewrite the history of the 20th Century, literally incinerating it atop a pile of nitrate film stock?”

I include that to defend myself against the charge that I don’t “get” Tarantino when I assert the following: Django Unchained is an underwritten, undisciplined, misguided mess of a movie.

That’s not to call it worthless. Although it features an Oscar-winning performance by Christoph Waltz (essentially reprising his role from Basterds, for which he also won an Oscar) the really interesting acting is done by Leonardo DiCaprio, finally paying off on the promise he showed in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. I also liked Samuel L. Jackson’s take on what was conceived as a mere sketch. You can sense their deflation when Tarantino shifts gears about 2/3 in: DiCaprio and Jackson are suddenly faced with a writer/director who abandons the work they’ve done so far and is subsequently only interested in seeing them blown away. Waltz maintains his dignity though, which might have been worth the Oscar.

There has been some interesting commentary on this film, with at least one writer calling it brave revisionism that only Tarrantino has the balls to pull off (paraphrased from Rolling Stone). Tarantino said that he’d always hated Alex Haley’s Roots, because the slaves never rise up and murder their oppressors. Clearly, he’s out to remedy that shortcoming here, although his benefaction only extends to the title character – the other slaves just gaze on Jamie Foxx adoringly, like Spielberg’s blacks looked upon Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

Women don’t fare well in Django Unchained, either. Tarantino gives Kerry Washington little to do except look pretty and scream. From the guy who elevated Pam Greer in Jackie Brown, made Mélanie Laurent and Diane Kruger the twin hearts of Basterds, this is more than a little surprising and very disappointing. (Washington’s Olivia Pope character on TV’s Scandal would surely tell Django to go to hell.)

The (Oscar-nominated) cinematography by Robert Richardson is all but terrible. Too many scenes are illogically lit, using the wrong color from the wrong angle. I’m inclined to think this was on purpose, because Richardson has done beautiful work for Tarantino before (Basterds), and also for Scorsese (most exceptionally on Hugo). Still, the effects here are too reminiscent of Richardson’s work on JFK and Natural Born Killers, for Oliver Stone. We can excuse the “overhead interrogation light” in a contemporary piece, but it’s anachronistic and distracting here. (All cinematographers should consult HBO’s Deadwood as supreme authority on how to light the American West.)

The editing too is sloppy, although maybe Fred Raskin was only working with what he had. Because Tarantino spends so much time paying homage to the genre films he’s loved, it’s hard to tell if he’s making something bad on purpose (for some Higher Purpose). Nevertheless, scene transitions are a real problem in Django – the only real cohesion is when bodies are exploding blood.

There is plenty of blood. Hollywood has said that its fantasies can’t be blamed when crazies pick up guns and murder people. Tarantino himself has said that (the Django premier was cancelled because of the Newtown, CT shootings.) On the other hand, Hollywood films, and Django in particular, make a special effort to have villains commit plenty of atrocities so the audience will feel a special rush when the heroes blow them away. We are conditioned to expect the righteous judgment of a hero with a weapon. Because he is the hero, he will kill the villains – almost always, many many many villains.

Tarantino obviously despises slavery. He makes sure to show slaves being forced to gouge one anothers’ eyes out, breaking one anothers’ bones, being torn apart by dogs, so that we will also hate slavery. And then his hero will lovingly blow all of those evil slave owners to pieces – in extreme slow motion for maximum enjoyment. This is immoral shit. Why is the solution always a gun, and why is the hero always the best shot? (If the villain is a better shot, does that make the villain right in the end? It follows, if you think about it.) And so, this “bold, revisionist history” asserts that American slavery could have been eliminated by lots of well-placed bullets.

(What I’m conflicted about is why I can accept a film that at face value is very similar – Inglourious Basterds – and yet dismiss Django Unchained as exploitative. I admit that I can’t yet explain my answer. I was appalled at the violence in Basterds, and yet I accepted it there as comedy, more or less.)

The long middle passage of Django is its ultimate raison d’être. From the beautifully cheographed setting of a dinner table through the long talk over a meal, Tarantino subverted my desire to dismiss this movie entirely. It struck me that this sequence, the only one in the film that feels fully formed, is what Tarantino built the rest of the movie around. All of the actors shine in this sequence, and we’re not distracted by the too-clever contemporary music choices that mar the rest of the film. Tarantino’s characters are best when they just talk, and for a long stretch that’s what they get to do. Too bad when it ends.