The Moviegoer: Is Irresistance Futile? Of Silver Linings and Unchaining Django

The Moviegoer: Is Irresistance Futile? Of Silver Linings and Unchaining Django January 10, 2013

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) & Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

     Part of the sports fandom playbook is the power of positive thinking. For instance, here is a trajectory of things that I may or may not have said to my dad during my Pittsburgh Steelers’ bumbling 8-8 season: Well, we have a new offensive coordinator, so we were bound to struggle out of the gate on offense; we’ve had to overcome a lot of injuries this season—we just need to get healthy at the right time; we lost that game but we kept it close when we should have been blown out; we have so much talent—once we put it all together we’ll be unbeatableall we need to do is get into the playoffs; well, at least we have a high draft pick for once. Sports fans—and probably their loved ones—are familiar with these sorts of optimisms. It’s the kind of persistent thought process that strives to locate a reassurance in the midst of apparent adversity. It’s especially difficult, though, for some fan bases to summon the silver lining outlook—they’ve experienced too many consistent false starts, illegal procedures, and unsportsmanlike conducts. Too much losing. That is, some fan bases have a hard time executing the silver lining playbook because years of ineptitude or sharp instances of misery have produced damaged fandom psyches.

As such, David O. Russell’s latest, Silver Linings Playbook, is—like 2010’s The Fighter—a sports film that’s not primarily about sports. Except Playbook is even less about sports than Fighter; it is shaped peripherally by a late modern therapeutic idiom that permeates the sports landscape, embedded by the scoreboard mentality that sports can inculcate in its devotees. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, but he’s returning home to live with his parents after eight months of mental health treatment due to a particularly violent incident. One day, he came home early from work at the local school to find his wife, Nikki, with another teacher in the shower together while Pat and Nikki’s wedding song is playing in the background. The sight and sound of the adultery sent Pat into a fury that left the other man near death. Just released from hospitalization, Pat wishes to reorder his life, and is particularly determined to reconcile with Nikki. The problem, which everyone but Pat seems to recognize, is Nikki isn’t too interested in reconciliation; in fact, the violent eruption led her to attain a restraining order. A bit of a pariah in the community, alienated from his wife, jobless, and still psychologically traumatized, Pat nevertheless persistently clings to the therapy prescribed to him during his hospitalization. He desperately needs a silver lining.

Enter Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), who is sister-in-law to Pat’s friend, Ronnie. She’s a young woman with her own damaging marital destruction. Namely, she’s having a damned time dealing with the unexpected death of her husband. Feeling guilty that their sexual intimacy had grown lackluster leading up to his death, Tiffany’s become a woman who is passed around town from guy to guy; her vulnerability is an open wound that is used and abused. When Pat and Tiffany meet one another at Ronnie’s, a peculiar friendship of alike ill-minded neurotics develops. They also make a deal with one another: Tiffany will deliver a letter to Nikki from Pat, if Pat will train with Tiffany to participate in a local Dancing-with-the-Stars-styled contest. Eventually, Pat hopes that Nikki will be in attendance at the contest to see how he’s changed. Meanwhile, Pat’s father (Robert Deniro) is an avid Eagles fan who is also out of work; he’s now wholly devoted to bookmaking in order to earn enough money to start a restaurant. The father sees his son as a kind of good-luck charm—superstition being the other great American sports mindset.

“Feel good” films often—and often rightly—get lambasted by critics who are allergic to manipulative, formulaic storytelling meant to cheaply give people what they want rather than what they might need. Playbook is guilty of this to some degree in its third act, but before addressing that, I think there are some performances and choices worth appreciating here. Cooper and Lawrence both put in compelling performances, which has come as a surprise to many critics. The latter, though, is much less of a surprise to me, because Lawrence has already shown excellence in 2010’s Winter’s Bone—and she even carries the way in this year’s franchise starter, The Hunger Games. It’s also nice to see De Niro trading in Meet the Parents sequels for the more interesting roles we all know he’s still capable of. For a film that’s part “rom-com,” Playbook is unafraid to shine a light on humanity’s darker tendencies, and Cooper is most effective as a man brooding with insecurities and potential rage. But it’s Russell’s direction, I think, that makes this film more worthwhile than it probably has reason to be. The dialogue is snappy, the use of Pat’s dad to frame the story’s theme is effective, and several scenes are more than up to the task of drawing us in enough to endear us to these characters; the scene, for instance, when Pat and Tiffany get into a heated argument out in public, and he begins to hear his wedding song in his head, is quite a memorable, well-executed one.

Further, part of the reason I’m ok with the climactic dance competition scene is the way the training leading up to the competition functions as a repetitious self-discipline for Pat’s neurotic self. By having to focus on learning to dance with Tiffany, Pat’s mind is forming new others-oriented habits. Lastly, I appreciate that the film’s “feel good” conclusion is ultimately a measured one. I got sucked into the film’s climactic dance, but I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure. The Eagles don’t win the Super Bowl, and Pat and Tiffany don’t win the competition—in fact, they don’t come close. This isn’t a triumph; it’s two damaged souls finding a small victory after beginning a long road to self-restraint. The whole film is framed to restrain any delusion about feeling too good; the climactic scene is a silver lining moment, one that feels good because of the lows these two characters have experienced.

Here’s the one big problem with Playbook, though: even the marginally humble silver linings playbook mentality isn’t the right play-call for our insecurities, compulsiveness, addictions, delusions, self-hatred, and guilt. Yes, with some phrasing adjustments and allowances, “grace” is probably something like the ultimate “silver lining,” and there are a few such gracious moments in Playbook, to be sure. Indeed, the whole film has a kind of graciousness with which it treats its damaged characters. But, let’s not play pretend: gracious moments don’t happen as the result of the power of positive thinking, and other people, even gracious, loved ones, cannot, in themselves, ultimately make us well.  Hence, this film, though laudable in a number of ways, reverts to nicely packaged dishonesty. I suspect that the joy stemming from their dance competition won’t be therapeutic enough of a sustaining memory for Pat and Jennifer in their future together when their problems creep up again; and, almost as likely then, there’s little to prevent this film from fading from memory. We’re presented characters who struggle to help themselves, and then we’re presented with a conclusion that’s not quite acceptable. But I suppose we’ll keep getting them because we need another shot in the arm. And we just can’t resist, either.

     In an interview with Roger Ebert back in 1994–when Pulp Fiction was a hit at Cannes–Quentin Tarantino gave something of an insight that’s as strikingly relevant as ever with the recent release of Django Unchained. “One thing I was waiting for,” Ebert says to Tarantino, “was the scene where everybody is standing in a circle with their guns pointing at one another.” Tarantino, head nodding, responds,

They couldn’t believe I ended [True Romance] the same way I did [Reservoir Dogs]. It’s the modern-day equivalent of the western showdown. . . . And [yet] every single one of my stories is different. One of the things I kinda like is my stuff leads to a volatile conclusion. Everything’s been building and building and building and then, it’s like, how can I stretch this out the most? I want to send you out the door like you’ve seen a movie. So often these days movies have bad endings. I almost don’t expect a movie to have a good ending anymore.

It’s no spoiler to say that Django ends with a volatile western showdown. But Tarantino is at least partly right that his movies are different, and with Django, as in his other films, there’s quite a bit that’s worthy of our attention.

Tarantino’s latest opens with the kind of classic, dialogically rich scene we’ve come to expect from the director. It’s 1858 and “somewhere in Texas,” and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz)–a German bounty hunter fronting as a dentist–approaches a shackled line of male slaves as they are being transported by two white brothers during a cold, winter’s night. Among the slaves is Django (Jamie Foxx), who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda, due to separate sales at a slave auction. Schultz, as it so happens, is in need of Django, but not because there’s a bounty on his head; rather, it’s because he believes Django knows where his next bounties–the three Brittle brothers–might be located. And, so, with a bit of wit from Schultz’s ironically eloquent and mannered killer of a character, and some cartoonish violence brought upon the unwilling white brothers, Django is unchained from the get-go. What starts between Django and Schultz as a simple agreement to find the Brittle brothers in exchange for Django’s freedom, $75, and a horse, eventually turns into a bounty-hunting partnership with the desire to rescue Broomhilda from the slave-owner projected as the most despicable of all, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Django gave me much to admire. First, there’s the ways in which Tarantino is consistently excellent. The dialogue is as sharp and witty as ever. The director’s penchant for pausing within a scene to allow his wonderfully designed characters to further define themselves by talking-it-out makes most (like, say, two and a half acts most) of this nearly three hour ride somehow feel efficient. Of course, the selection of music to fit particular scenes is also characteristically delightful, as is, for the most part, the director’s use of dark humor (though a third act choice to, ahem, self-destruct sure feels like unnecessary zaniness for zaniness’s sake). And, wow, does this film feature some memorable characters. Three in particular–Waltz as a German, manicured bounty hunter, DiCaprio as one of the most frightfully maniacal villains I’ve seen, and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s horrifying Uncle Tom henchman–would have been suitable choices for awards as far as I’m concerned. Frankly, it’s some of DiCaprio’s and Jackson’s best work in a while.

Another quality I appreciate about Django is in a couple of ways it frames its violence. As others have noted, the violence committed against slaves has a much more serious tonal depiction than does the violence committed against white slave holders (or enablers); that is, the violence committed against the latter is far more cartoonish, while the former is treated with a seriousness that never flirts with Tarantino’s more humorous hues. Another interesting bit in the film was pointed out by my friend, Ken Morefield, over at Christianity Today, where he suggests that much of the film’s moral complexity can be derived from charting how Django’s decisions evolve “at various stages of freedom.” Ken’s whole review is worth reading, but I think he’s on to something because, as he notes, Django’s reluctance during his first long-distance bounty hunting makes for an interesting angle to the film.

Yet, as much as I admire all of these qualities, I left the film feeling battered–and not in the sense that I have a problem with viewing difficult content. Let me be clear: I’m thankful that Tarantino didn’t sugar-coat the cruelty of slavery. Instead, what I mean is that I thought Tarantino’s directorial choices left me battered. Jeffrey Overstreet has mentioned this in his fine review, but Tarantino knows only one mode of tension: the threat of gruesome violence. The first 2/3 of the film worked for me in terms of pacing and Tarantino’s ability to offset violence with lighter moments. But not long after landing in Candieland, the whole experience soured for me. The best example I can give of the director’s tiresome, limited formal use of tension is the scene near the end of the film (spoiler alert, I guess) when Django is strung upside down and about to be castrated. the last minute…A DOOR SWINGS OPEN! (RELIEF!). Ah, but guess what, Django. You’re only in for something MUCH WORSE in being sold. Yes, yes, MUCH WORSE than castration and bleeding to death! Look, there’s a place for this sort of tension-building in story-telling, but Tarantino’s barrage of it–with seemingly no other worthwhile tension in complement–just wears me out here.

And while Tarantino may, unlike The Help, show the bleakness of race relations, all we have to show for it in the end is not much different. Tarantino’s comeuppance shit-pie for the white woman is a shotgun blast into the other room (laughs! cheers! RELIEF!). If you recall the interview I began with, it seems to fit with my significant qualm. Tarantino builds and builds and builds and then erupts with almost masturbatory violence. Of course, they do call that third-act relief a “climax” for a reason, but I’m not sure Tarantino’s idea of release is so relieving. He’s a master at crafting fairy tales set in brutally realistic times and circumstances. Undoubtedly, he’s one of the best at making you feel, during countless moments, that you’re seeing a movie with all of the grand, entertaining spectacle he means by that ambition. But I didn’t leave the theater satisfied by the conclusion; I left with an overriding sense of having been exploited. I wish Tarantino could work out a tale with more imaginative conceptions of relief and justice. For a man this enormously talented, I’m willing to bet he can. Perhaps he just can’t resist.

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