Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Django Unchained, or How Inglorious 2.0 (Slavery Edition) is a bloody mess

Django Unchained
Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson & Kerry Washington.

Oscar nomination: 5
Best Original Screenplay (Quentin Tarantino), Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Cristoph Waltz), Best Picture

What to say of Quentin Tarantino's latest revenge fantasy set in the years before the Civil War and centered around ex-slave Django (Foxx)'s quest to rescue his beloved Bromhilda (Washington) with the help of a German bounty hunter (Waltz)? I'll say this, Tarantino knows how to score the hell out of a movie: Morricone's Ancora Qui is particularly haunting, quietly scoring the calm before the blood-splattered climax at Candieland. He also knows how to get visceral performances from his actors. This serves DiCaprio and Waltz quite well; the former relishes playing a dandy villainous role while the latter tweaks his charismatic yet ruthless take on Hans Landa to good effect. But the movie, both in its exploration of race relations through the prism of a spaghetti western and its success at offering actors a playful arena in which to let loose, wholly belongs to Samuel L. Jackson's cruel, and hammy Stephen. As Candie (DiCaprio)'s right hand man at his plantation, Jackson's Stephen is the epitome of what Tarantino's unwieldy movie seems to want to accomplish: to look deeply into the shameful past of slavery.  Stephen is the most despicable character in the film, not least because he is a character who perpetuates (and relishes) the very enslavement that keeps him tied to Candie. 

That Tarantino, in usual Tarantino-fashion, frames his film as a revenge fantasy following a cipher of a man who hopes to be reunited with his mostly-mute wife (Washington is given barely a personality let alone any dialogue) amidst a mostly entertaining shoot-em-up western is what makes it interesting in theory yet lacking in execution. Tarantino has several scenes that shine (Candie's phrenology-inspired outburst, Schultz's introduction) but overall the film feels not only too long but too often dragging. While the violence is at once more stylized yet less glamorized than in his past films, packing a punch especially because of the real-life violence they evoke (I'm thinking here of the dogs scene and the mandingo fight), it nevertheless reduces Django's quest less to the larger context of slavery than to the American individualized myth: Django and Bromhilda get their happy ending, even as the structure of slavery remains intact. In this sense, while the flair and subject matter of the film should harken back to Tarantino's own Inglorious Basterds, it is telling that while that 2009 film ended with the (albeit imagined) murder of the Fuhrer and his most trusted advisors, thus annihilating Nazi ideology both figuratively and literally, Django barely attempts to address the larger structural institution that enslaved the very characters that populate Tarantino's latest. C+


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I pondered whether or not to indict the film for having nothing to say about race and in the end, I didn't. Perhaps Tarantino thinks he's contributing something to the race convo but he's not - and that's okay. Django's race is only inasmuch as it gives the film a reason for the events to occur but it's "conversation" on race is superficial. There are things which annoy me (the lack of focus the jokes that out stay their welcome) but the things I liked were stronger.

I know most are a bit annoyed with the slight role of Kerry but I keep saying she's my second MVP. The way the film uses the German legend necessitates that she come off as this illusory out-of-reach ideal woman and she's great in this, especially in those scenes opposite Jackson.

mB said...

I'd be persuaded to not indict it for its approach to race, if Tarantino didn't make it a crucial part of its plot mechanism (Schultz's inability to shake Candie's hand, for example strikes me as a very overt nod to the way we're suppose to take these characters as standing in for critiques of the larger institution Candie represents, Stephen's death and the burning of Candie's house -- not to mention his sister -- also suggest that Tarantino wants to frame these moments as larger than the love story at their core.

But agreed: Washington does wonders with what little she gets to do.

Tips And Tricks said...

I only had one thought on my mind for this Christmas: see Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's latest opus, a Western set two years before the Civil War, concerns a former slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). He is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help him with a bounty. Quite quickly, Shultz takes Django under his wing and trains him as his partner. But he made him a promise: that he would rescue his wife from a plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). And rescuing her is not going to be all that easy. Blog about movies online .