In a particularly contentious year for mainstream cinema (fierce debates have sparked over “Cloud Atlas,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Lincoln,” “Les Miserábles,” etc., etc.), it was perhaps only fitting that Quentin Tarantino should put a cap on things. The shock jock auteur has been both hailed and condemned for his celebration of low-brow, exploitation cinema since his brilliant one-two debut punch of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction;” the irony of course being that those violent films seem positively docile compared to Tarantino’s latest couple of outings.
By tackling WWII and the Holocaust in “Inglourious Basterds” and now American slavery in “Django Unchained,” QT has brazenly planted his stake in two of the biggest hot-button topics of history – and rather than contentedly tiptoe around the edges of the brick wall of Racial Discourse (like, say, Spielberg did with “Lincoln”), Tarantino has opted instead to burst right through them like a Road Runner cartoon. Say what you will about him (and there is much to say), but the man’s got style.
Indeed, even by Tarantino’s exceptionally saturated standards, “Django Unchained” may well be his most hyper-aware, overtly aestheticized film since “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” Setting aside its content for a moment, the film is as exceptionally crafted a love letter to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as the “Kill Bill” films were to kung fu flicks and “Jackie Brown” was to blaxploitation. The superficial elements are there, sure: the Ennio Morricone tunes (both recycled and brand-new), the gorgeous cinematography of dusty landscapes (reminiscent of Eastwood’s Spanish vistas), a cameo appearance by Franco Nero, the original Django himself.
But more than that, Tarantino has clearly digested the real elements of what make a Western tick. It comes as no surprise to me that the director lists “The Wild Bunch” and “Rio Bravo” among his favorites of the genre, two films that both a) value sharp dialogue over some of their cheaper contemporaries, and b) have at their core a brotherly friendship between men. For its first half, “Django Unchained” is essentially a buddy picture, as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, as sharp as he was in “Basterds,” if less menacing) bonds with Django (Jamie Foxx), the slave he frees in return for assistance in his bounty hunting enterprise. In a lesser film, Schultz’s agreement to help Django free his wife from the clutches of a sadistic plantation owner (Leo DiCaprio) might come off as a considerable narrative contrivance – here that decision evolves quite naturally out of the growing connection between the two. As Hugh Jackman might bray, liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The thing is, Tarantino is not content to simply replicate the genre, as the Coens were (more or less) with “True Grit” a few years back. He loves the gut-level appeal of exploitation films, the power of gangster films or spaghetti Westerns to grab their audience purely based on shocking material, but always wants to push further, to raise his films to the level of artistry through ever bolder, more daring choices. He wants to deliberately shatter cultural taboos, and so we get these elaborate revenge fantasies – a troop of Jewish soldiers gunning down Hitler, a freed slave decimating every racist white man in his path.
It’s a peculiar “have your cake and eat it too” attitude that Tarantino has adopted and one that I can’t say I’m totally on board with. At the same time that he wants his audience to essentially turn off its brain, to indulge our most base instincts in his symphonic, explosive set-pieces of blood and gore, the director simultaneously relies on a great amount of self-awareness for his high-minded satire to work: we only laugh because we have accepted “Django Unchained” as a realm of fantasy. You must consciously decide to dismiss the complicated historical, cultural and psychological implications of this film, lest by enjoying it you simply become an ignorant sadist. It’s a bizarre disjunction and I’m not entirely convinced, even having enjoyed “Django Unchained” quite a great deal, that in the end it’s ethically defensible.
Yes, if I condemn Tarantino or his audience on any count, I must surely implicate myself. I don’t know if it’s right to find humor in the incomprehensible horror of slavery, but God help me I laughed at Waltz’s absurdly abrupt murders, and trembled at DiCaprio’s smarmy devil, and gaped slack-jawed at Samuel L. Jackson’s incredibly brave decision to lend his trademark badass image to a sniveling, cringe-inducing Uncle Tom. There is so much to admire in “Django Unchained,” so much unadulterated sensual pleasure to indulge in. It’s all too easy to go into cruise control and embrace the absurdity of it all (the film, for instance, goes to really quite incredible lengths to justify Waltz’s extremely German presence) – which is of course exactly what Tarantino wants you to do, and, who knows, perhaps it’s what you should do.
Not that there aren’t flaws to the film, even on a pure cinematic level: while it’s more tightly constructed than “Inglourious Basterds,” with its abrupt transitions between scenes (even as those individual scenes reached virtuosic heights), “Django” starts significantly dragging in the second half of the film, when the engaging relationship between Schultz and Django flags in favor of generic shoot-em-up heroism. Most damning though is Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s wife and a complete nothing of a character. This damsel in distress is a pitiful excuse for a female figure from the man who gave us Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo and Shoshanna Dreyfuss; I mean, not every girl has to cut through the Crazy 88’s, but she could at least do something other than scream, faint and cry. Like, say, more than two complete lines of dialogue, for instance.
Like its controversial peers, “Django Unchained” is a highly ambitious, highly complex piece of filmmaking. It is worthy of watching, if nothing else, to give you something to debate with your friends and neighbors – and if you happen to have a boatload of fun with it as well, the more power to you (or maybe not).
Now playing in theaters.
Ethan’s Verdict: BOOM BOOM BOOM GUNSHOTS