Saturday, December 29, 2012

Last Chance, Fancy Pants

Django Unchained is not a very interesting movie. This is not a criticism. Wait a minute, yes it is. What it isn't, though, is a condemnation. I walked into Quentin Tarantino's new film with no small amount of trepidation, having heard from parties with whom I share a strong affinity for Tarantino's work that Django Unchained was the unambiguous nadir of his career. My trepidation was cut by the fact that, as someone who believes that Tarantino has gotten better with each new film since Reservoir Dogs, his first, in 1992 (this gets dicey, not only because I'm not a big fan of 2007's Death Proof, which alone throws off the graph, but also because I still haven't decided if Kill Bill Vol. 1 is better than Jackie Brown on its own terms or only when taken as a whole with Kill Bill Vol. 2; in any case, the second Kill Bill is better than the first, and I'll be publishing my complete findings in some journal of some sort in the future), that I found it difficult to understand how he could have suddenly shit the bed so thoroughly. Well, callooh callay, in my view he's done no such thing. And yet...

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).
The question now is, how is it? Well, to begin with, I think the film contains, among a lot of other good ones, three terrific performances in those given by Foxx, Jackson, and DiCaprio. Foxx plays Django with a great deal of stillness, which is by now a clichè when describing this kind of performance, but Foxx goes beyond stillness, if that makes any sense. At least as much of the film is spent by Foxx playing the role of a black slaver as it is on a man on a cold-eyed quest for revenge and salvation, and it's in the former spot that Foxx really shines. He plays what he believes to be the scum of the earth exactly as Schultz instructed him, full out, and in doing so becomes a genuinely frightening character. He goes so far that Schultz becomes uneasy, as did I -- how far is Django's desire to save his wife going to push him? At one point, when Candie consults with him about how to handle a runaway slave, pretty goddamn far, although in practical terms Django's stance on the issue might be the only possible one. It certainly does produce a ripple effect, however. Jackson, meanwhile, as I said is terrifying, but he's only terrifying when Candie isn't looking or isn't around. Stephen works entirely for Candie, lives for him and licks his boots, not literally but only just barely. In this role, Stephen, who knows he's smarter than Candie, has to always be watchful, and always cruel, and always willing to sell his own people down the river, or personally torture them into either submission or the grave. In his three major roles with Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and now Django Unchained, Jackson is always physically transformed in really striking, unforgettable ways (his look in Jackie Brown was described by Tarantino as looking like the Devil in a Mexican horror film), and here he's quite effectively done up to resemble a cartoon, or perhaps an old woodcut, version of an elderly house slave, with his ring of white hair around his bald head, topped with another lonely cotton ball of hair just above his forehead. Always hunched and hobbling with a cane, Jackson plays Stephen as a loud, funny, pathetic creature who plays up the pathetic side to hide the cruelty from those for whom he'd like it to be a surprise.
Finally, there's DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, and, well, I think DiCaprio is absolutely tremendous here, in a role unlike anything else he's ever played. As someone who has always genuinely liked DiCaprio as an actor, I'm not surprised he was able to pull this off, but it was very exciting to see him actually do it. Though I don't necessarily share them, I understand the reservations some people have voiced over the years that DiCaprio was sticking himself in a dour rut, playing a series of tortured, near-humorless human disasters for Martin Scorsese and others. He's pretty much always good, so why complain, is my view of it, but in Django Unchained he's given all sorts of things to play that he's never done, not least of which is unfettered villainy, and he tears into it with abandon. Candie's urbanity and sophistication is largely a put on (Candie is a Francophile and he prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, Schultz is informed by Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie's attorney, but when Schultz tells Moguy that he would be delighted to converse with Candie in French, Moguy asks him not to do that because Candie cannot speak French, and therefore Schultz would only embarrass him), and DiCaprio plays this, as well. There's some nice humor to be mined from small moments that show Candie quickly extracting himself from conversational bear traps in which he is intellectually or culturally out of his element, but Tarantino and DiCaprio never pile it on or make too much of it. And when the time comes for Candie to blow his lid, DiCaprio can roar and froth and frighten with any of the best villains from recent history. In the spirit of honesty, I have to say that DiCaprio's involvement was for me one of the most intriguing aspects of Django Unchained, and his bold, funny, ferocious, and in some ways unexpected performance didn't let me down even a little bit.

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.
Then there's the anarchy, or what passes for it here. Last night I was listening to a podcast review of the film, and one of the hosts, who was quite taken with it, called it Tarantino's "least splattery" movie to date. If by "least splattery" he meant "second most splattery," then I have little choice but to agree with him. But waves and bursts and fountains of blood are Tarantino's anarchy here. I'm not at all opposed to graphic violence in movies, as I believe I've made clear many times before, but Tarantino seems to be at a point with Django Unchained where he believes everything goes at any time. By which I mean, he believes everything will always work.  And for much of the film, I might not have found fault in this particular case, right up until the part where I do. The deal is, there's a sequence, Django Unchained's equivalent to Inglourious Basterds ingenious tavern scene, that begins as a dinner with all the main characters at Candie's plantation. From the moment two characters remove themselves from the dining room to discuss what one of them has recently discovered, to the point where another character chooses to make a sacrifice (for those who've seen the film, this could mean one of two moments, but I mean the latter of the two), I was thinking, in regards to some of the unnervingly negative things I'd heard about the film, "Well, I'm not really seeing the problem here." The whole sequence is pretty exquisite, to my mind, and features the best acting not only of Jackson and DiCaprio, but of Christoph Waltz, who otherwise is rather unfortunately giving the same performance he gave in Inglourious Basterds, only as a good guy this time. But anyway, it's riveting stuff. Then, however, the one character makes a decision, and the film resets to basically do it all again, violently, again, with more red on white spray. And so the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is something of a botch, not entirely ruinous, but needless and kind of dull -- needless and dull, that is to say, before in the final moments it becomes almost insulting. What Tarantino makes Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx do in that time is close to appalling, not on any sort of moral or ethical grounds or any nonsense like that (briefly: the morals of Django Unchained are something of a hot topic right at the moment, but I found them to be no more or less fascinating than in your standard revenge plot. The film's racial component is what has a lot of people stroking their chins, but my views on it here are no different than they were for Inglourious Basterds, and I'm afraid I don't have a great deal of interest in hashing all that out again), because morals or ethics or whatever don't actually enter into the thing I'm trying not to describe because it's the very end of the film, and am therefore tying myself into knots about. But here's what it is: Tarantino turns his film into a cartoon. It was basically that already, but not significantly or unpleasantly more so than Kill Bill Vol. 1 (the Tarantino film this most resembles). Here, though, it's the kind of cartoon so many of Tarantino's harshest critics have accused him of making, that is, one with no weight or seriousness as a piece of art, a live action cartoon as reference-factory. "What you just saw doesn't matter," Tarantino seems to be saying here, and this is exactly the kind of thing I, as a Tarantino fan and defender, have always argued he never does. Yet here, he does it, and it was an uncomfortable thing for me to witness.

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.


Amir said...

Thematically speaking I actually don't have a problem with the ending, fairy-tale-y as it may be, but the way he presented it made me cringe a bit. I think my least favourite shot in the film is of Broomhilda holding her ears waiting for that explosion with the ridiculously cartoonish blue sky and the stars behind her. It just went against the current in a film that, while being light on many levels and not taking itself too seriously, knew that there was an important story being told.

bill r. said...

Yes, that, then the clapping, then the horse tricks. That's what I was referring to.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I have a theory that Tarantino made his film in phases that mirror the phases of the Spaghetti Western. The third phase of the Spaghetti Western was the Trinity films with Terrence Hill. As I'm sure you know, they were just parodies of the subgenre (and eventually marked the end of the subgenre), but they were hugely popular despite their mocking and undercutting of everything the country loved about the Spaghetti Western. Django Unchained felt that way to me at the end: the clapping, the horse first I was putt off by it. But the more I thought about it in the Trinity context, the more I smiled. It made me think that Tarantino's film follows the same trajectory as the Spaghetti Western itself: going from basic Leone Spaghetti Western to the darker Corbucci revenge stories to the farcical Trinity films.

The most interesting element to me was the Samuel L. Jackson character, especially in regards to how, in its own way, his relationship with Candie mirrors that of Schultz and Django.

Great, great stuff, Bill.

bill r. said...

You've made me realize, Kevin, that I didn't even mention the spaghetti Western stuff. I guess I took it as a given, but I probably shouldn't have.

As for your theory, if I'd liked the film more I might give Tarantino credit for thinking of that, but I'm not sure I can do that.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

The invoking of WILD AT HEART here is apt, for all the reasons you state, Bill. DJANGO U is a far better movie than that one, but I don't think it's being unnecessarily worrisome to wonder at what point Tarantino, the master remixer of modern movies, will begin doing riffs on Quentin Tarantino movies.

That said, I really enjoyed DJANGO UNCHAINED overall. Kevin, your notion certainly never occurred to me, but it's intriguing, and I would say that the question of whether or not it was Tarantino's intention is irrelevant. What it comes down to what effect, if any, does noticing or not noticing it have on the experience of the movie, particularly the last section.

I complained somewhat to Bill elsewhere about the loss of steam in that section. I was also somewhat put off by the movie's reticence to be as bold with the sexual aspect of Hildy's enslavement, not to mention her relationship with Django, as it was with the violence, and what that element's absence says about the story being told and how QT has chosen to tell it. In thinking about why this concluding act didn't feel as powerful to me as I expected it might, it occurred to me that in depicting the Django/Hildy relationship QT rendered it virtually sexless, and by extension as a depiction of slavery the movie was curiously mute (or at the very most coy) on the subject of the sexual degradation of slaves, male and female.

Not that I demand to see all the nasty stuff, but it is clearly part of what is going on with Hildy at Candieland, and it seemed a bit odd that the movie gets downright demure when the subject comes up. Seeing a trailer for MANDINGO before my viewing of DU, and then in thinking about it afterward, I still think that derided 1975 movie has it all over this one in terms of brutal honesty about the conditions of slavery. The worthiness of MANDINGO as a film will likely be debated for a good long while (I think it's pretty damned good myself), and it would be disingenuous to suggest that both films are up to the same game-- they clearly aren't. But DU is denuded of a certain perspective on brutality that would have, I think, made the experience of it stronger, perhaps more difficult, which MANDINGO has no shortage of.

Of course Django is deserving of every fantasy of Hildy's purity that he sees spurring him along. I was just disappointed that QT couldn't find room to suggest something else to go along with that angelic purity-- passion, perhaps, in her life with Django, or the kind of outrage and pent-up anger that it is suggested, by her running away and eventual imprisonment in the hot box, she has toward her life at Candieland, and Candie in particular. That might have also been a pathway into making Hildy something more than the passive, uninteresting figure she is in the film.