Saturday, December 29, 2012
Last Chance, Fancy Pants
So what the film is, is it's a revenge story ("Again!?" some will balk; "Feh!" I will say back to them) about a black slave in 1858 America named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is violently freed from his chains one evening by a German one-time dentist, now bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz loathes slavery, but enters into a bargain with Django wherein, for legal reasons, Django will remain his slave on paper while the two of them hunt down a trio of slavers named the Brittle Brothers -- Django knows what these men look like, having dealt with them, or having been dealt with by them, before, and Schultz doesn't -- for which service Schultz will pay Django and then set him free. At first a seemingly reckless lunatic, Schultz proves himself to be exceptionally smart and sly, not to mention free with his money, so Django agrees. The first forty-or-so minutes of Django Unchained is taken up with this hunt, and then with Django and Schultz's bonding, which is both personal and professional after Django becomes Schultz's full-time bounty hunting partner. Along the way, Django reveals that his goal is to find and free from slavery his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Moved by this, and by stories of both Django and Broomhilda's torture at the hands of a variety of slave traders and plantation owners (including Bruce Dern, in a cameo), Schultz offers to help in this quest, which eventually leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the vile, sadistic, pretentious (in the true meaning of the word), crafty, charismatic, monstrous, and all sorts of other things you'd want in a good villain, Southern dandy who owns Broomhilda. In addition to that, Candie's also deeply involved in the sport of "Mandingo fighting," the definition of which you can piece together if you've ever seen Richard Fleischer's controversial and much maligned 1975 film Mandingo (unfairly maligned on moral grounds, I'd say, without thinking it's actually all that good), and which you might figure out anyway, but which in any case is the practice of forcing two slaves to fight each other to the death, and betting on the outcome. It's dog fighting, but with people, in other words. This is the door through which Schultz and Django will enter Candie's world, taking on the guise of two men interested in buying the finest Mandingo fighters Candie has for an outrageous sum, with their true eye towards scooping up Broomhilda, their true quarry, as a kind of afterthought, or so they hope it will seem to Candie. This plan puts Django in the position of playing the part of a black slaver, a free black man who sells and abuses his own people. This, Django tells Schultz, is the lowest form of scum on earth, and once the wheels of this plan are well into motion, it will set him directly on a path towards a showdown with Candie's house slave, the painfully obsequious, but also terrifying and smarter than his boss, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
As for the rest of the film, it is, again, not very interesting. But does it need to be? I don't know, but it's not. Tarantino was correct in dubbing his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, his masterpiece, and it would be an unpleasant claim of entitlement to be upset that Django Unchained is not better than that. Still, Inglourious Basterds was, in addition to all the other things it was, such as relentlessly entertaining, very, very interesting, even fascinating. I'm talking in terms of pure filmmaking here. That film (which I wrote about extensively here, with my pal Dennis Cozzalio) was endlessly inventive and strange, with a structure that was terrifically confident and precise, at the same time as it was being wild and off-kilter. In Django Unchained, Tarantino seems to shy away from that kind of adventurousness in favor of a much more accessible form of anarchy. And what's wrong with a little accessible anarchy, you ask? Nothing too much, I suppose, except that stretched to well over two hours and coming from the man who gave us not only Inglourious Basterds but Kill Bill (the both of them, together), it can rapidly become a little disappointing, and, finally, sort of limp. You can see Tarantino straining to bring something new into this film, but having little idea how specific scenes should or will work within the whole. For instance, in the first half of the film, he drops in what has to count as a comedy sketch involving a band of proto-Klansman led by (a very good) Don Johnson that starts off funny, when I thought it was going to be a throwaway joke, and becomes absurdly out of place as it keeps going and never stops. I think it has never stopped. Tarantino cuts away from it, so I think it might still be happening, with the two jokes introduced repeating themselves long into the morning hours.
Where that leaves the film, or where that leaves me and the film, I don't know. "I liked it," is what I would say to anyone who asked me. There are some wonderful things here, and I was rarely bored. But what it puts me in mind of, now that I sit here struggling with it, is David Lynch's Wild at Heart. I've always said that Wild at Heart is Lynch's worst film precisely because it's the only time where Lynch seems to have caved into both the hype and criticism of his previous films, and made a movie that is in effect composed of all the easy reductions of his previous work -- all they are, are weird violent sex fantasies, or whatever and etc. In his own way, I'm beginning to fear that's what Tarantino has done with Django Unchained. Tarantino beats Lynch in that this is not a bad film, nor is it even Tarantino's worst. But speaking as a fan, a certain uneasiness can't help but set in.