Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) December 25, 2012

Whenever I’m asked about the work of Quentin Tarantino, I am reminded of a book that loved when I was a child.

The book was called Fortunately…

It illustrated the adventures of a boy who took very little action at all. He was carried along from good news to bad news in such a relentless cycle that readers were likely to become dizzy. I don’t remember it very clearly, but it went something like this: “Fortunately… the boy had a parachute. Unfortunately… the parachute had a hole in it. Fortunately… he landed in a lake. Unfortunately… the lake was full of piranhas.” You get the idea.

Describing Tarantino movies, I hear myself repeating the same pattern. They are almost always a mix of good-news/bad-news experiences.

So, here’s Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained. And even before I left the theater, I was already playing “Fortunately, Unfortunately.”

Fortunately for Tarantino’s fans… Django Unchained delivers more than one fantastic performance; some of the sharpest dialogue he’s written; some of the funniest scenes he’s ever staged; and another demonstration that he’s a genius at matching songs and images. It’s also one of the most beautifully filmed Westerns of the new century, with the great Robert Richardson behind the camera.

Unfortunately… where Tarantino’s greatest achievements (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds) weave together multiple plotlines about fascinating characters, Django is a straightforward genre tale about a fairly uninteresting gunslinger and his quest to rescue a damsel in distress. And, like all Tarantino stories, it’s about evil men doing terrible violence, and heroes who fight back with furious anger, appeasing the audience’s appetite for bloody vengeance.

Fortunately… Django Unchained brings Tarantino’s imagination into a context it hasn’t inhabited before: a time before rock music, before movies. It’s set in 1858, when it was a shocking thing to see a black man riding a horse through the South, and any black man claiming to be “free” was wise to lay low. Tarantino boldly refuses to airbrush the harsh realities of the period. He seems driven to show us all of the cruelty visited upon slaves —physical, psychological, verbal — that this romanticized genre has carefully avoided over the years. Slaves are chained, beaten, whipped, even hung naked by the feet and threatened with castration. “The N Word” occurs around a hundred times. It’s horrifying, but that’s because this stuff happened, and it would be a lie to pretend it didn’t.

Unfortunately…  Tarantino exploits these realities in order to stir up our support for a violent reckoning. He’s unleashing his own civil war of vigilante justice in the days preceding the clash of the blue and gray. He makes us want to see racists suffer in spectacular ways, to laugh at their desperation and messy death throes. Tarantino’s like a builder of time bombs; he loves nothing more than to give us the sense that at any given moment we could see chaotic and devastating violence erupt. It is, unfortunately, the only kind of tension he seems interested in developing.

FortunatelyDjango Unchained is not just a revenge story. His primary quest is to find his wife (Kerry Washington), who was taken from him and given to a different slave owner. She was named Brünnhilde by previous owners who taught her to speak their native German, Later, she was purchased by idiots who misunderstood and called her “Broomhilda.” Now she serves as a “comfort girl” to a particularly sadistic Mississippi plantation owner. Django means to save her.

Unfortunately… the film isn’t interested in the nature of their true love, just the scheming about the rescue and the violence that ensues.

FortunatelyDjango Unchained, like his last film Inglourious Basterds, stars Christoph Walz in a wonderfully engaging, funny, and fascinating performance.

This time, he plays Django’s guide and helper, Dr. King Schulz. He’s much more than a sidekick. Making the funniest entrance we’ve seen in a Western since the mad doctor in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Schulz is a bounty hunter disguised as a dentist. He’s hunting down evil men so he can earn the bounty. It’s a soul-killing kind of work. But his soul isn’t dead yet. “For the time being,” he says, grinning ruefully, “I’m going to make this slavery rigmarole work to my advantage. Having said that, I feel guilty.” That flicker of conscience just might lead him to risk his life for the sake of reuniting Django with his wife. So he trains Django in the importance of a good costume, in sharpshooting, and in the rewards of cultivating a persuasive alias.

(Perhaps Schulz’s confession is also Tarantino’s: Maybe he, too, feels a little guilty at finding so much absurd comedy, so much enjoyable violence in the context of American slavery.)

Unfortunately… Schulz is so engaging that he steals the show from Django himself. Django’s a a quiet, determined hero who isn’t particularly interesting until he’s trying to blast his way out of a bad guy’s plantation. Jamie Foxx, one of our most gifted actors, never gets to do anything particularly interesting.

Fortunately… there are two more incredible performances to see here. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, the primary villain, in a way that proves what I have always suspected about him — that he was born to be a character actor, not a romantic leading man.

DiCaprio’s career began with remarkably distinct characters (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and This Boy’s Life). After that, he was thrown onto the factory assembly line that creates handsome Hollywood leading men. Since then, his performances have been memorable only insofar as he’s found ways to make them strange and troubling. (The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can, and Shutter Island — he was unsettling and a little crazy in all of them.)

Candie, who foolishly fancies himself a Francophile and who calls his Mississippi plantation “Candie-land,” gives DiCaprio the freedom to command the screen, careening between high-mannered arrogance and infantile temper tantrums. He takes pleasure in watching black men harm one another, like The Joker in The Dark Knight who amuses himself by having two criminals fight with sharp sticks to the death. And he revels in describing what he perceives as a weakness in African Americans’ physical makeup… aligning him with the diabolical Nazis of Inglourious Basterds. It’s a great performance, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disgusting, but always terrifying.

Unfotunately… Candie’s cruelty is not really left to the imagination. Tarantino could have merely suggested that Candie lets disobedient slaves get torn apart by dogs, or stripped naked and castrated. Such imagery isn’t going to do anybody any good.

Fortunately… Candie’s power is much more effectively portrayed in the presence of his most important manservant, Steven.

In one of his most surprising and complicated performances, Samuel L. Jackson makes Steven into much more than a villain’s assistant. Steven seems like the archetype imagined by racist storytellers who like their black men to be slavishly subordinate and silly, inferiors who embrace their own captivity and degradation.

In laughing at, and loathing, Steven’s support of the system that oppresses him, we’re rejecting a character that white, racist America created to appease its own guilty conscience. (A similar thing happens today when wealthy, white Americans justify their indifference toward ethnic minorities, immigrants, the elderly, and the poor by imagining them as a culture of opportunists, slackers, and “takers” who threaten the establishment.)

Unfortunately… Tarantino is feeding the fires of a culture that is quick to endorse violence as the best response to a threat. He’s an American filmmaker, through and through, as enraptured by the fantasies we’ve created as he is critical of our history and our gunslinging presence on the international stage.

Fortunately… violent stories can be incredibly meaningful. To censor them all, as some would have us do, would hollow out public libraries, erase the complete works of Shakespeare, and cut The Bible in half. Violent stories can be occasions to teach us about choices and consequences, the wages of sin, and the power of mercy. While Tarantino’s reputation is all about his violent scenarios, he’s also given us moments of surprising tenderness, character development, transformation, and justice.

Unfortunately… Tarantino’s violence does not inspire sober reflection and soul-searching. It inspires a sense of exhilaration.

And as America sees increasing violence in its communities, it is important for us to discern which violent stories are likely to throw fuel on that fire, and which will incline us to love mercy, to humble ourselves, and to seek wisdom and responsibility. While Tarantino’s stories often challenge us to consider what we would fight to save or defend, they are also stylized to make lurid events enjoyable in unsettling ways.

(Sometimes I suspect young Quentin was left alone to cope with a lot of violence in his childhood, and, feeling powerless and violated, he escaped into the violent fantasies of American movies and found a twisted sort of solace there. It’s extremely interesting that he is so enamored of solitary but maternal women who spend their lives fighting for freedom. His mother seems to haunt his movies.)

Fortunately… this story contains traces of beauty, conscience, and sacrificial love. Django and Schulz will both, in the end, put their own lives on the line to liberate a suffering slave. So there’s that.

But even more than that, there is Tarantino’s admirable love for his craft. As much as he loves a story characterized by violence, he loves bringing characters to life even more. Their dialogue, their distinctions, their mannerisms, their fashion sense — his characters become indelible in our imaginations. Only the Coen Brothers can compare when we count how many remarkable personalities they’ve introduced into popular culture’s imagination.

Further, Tarantino is more devoted than any American filmmaker to respecting his sources, paying homage to his inspirations, and giving credit where credit is due. Django Unchained is filled with references to the movies that inspired him to make a Spaghetti Western, even as he turns the genre upside down. (Franco Nero, star of Django, the film that most inspired this one, shows up briefly, and his punchline is perfect.)

Unfortunately… most audiences will eat this up without doing the necessary work of discernment and discussion afterward. Only those who can discern the strengths and glories of Tarantino’s work, and perceive the weaknesses and self-indulgence as well, will be likely to come away truly rewarded by the experience.

I don’t go around recommending Tarantino’s movies — they would do more harm than good for a lot of moviegoers I know. His enthusiasm for slaughter is boring, predictable, and a failure of his imagination.

But I continue to study his movies for all that I learn about writing, acting, editing, scoring, and visual composition. Like him or not, he’s a master of his craft.

FortunatelyDjango Unchained does serve one notable purpose: It stands in stark contrast to longstanding traditions of American storytelling that have covered up the suffering slaves endured. When a culture tells stories that excuse its own evils long enough, the pendulum is sure to swing the other direction to reveal, even exaggerate, what has been left out.

As James Rocchi, reviewing Django Unchained has argued,

All of the violence and language has a point. I began Django Unchained uncomfortably wondering why Tarantino’s characters kept saying ‘nigger.’ By the end of the film, I was more inspired to think about all the times I hadn’t heard that word in the classic westerns I grew up with…

Rocchi continues:

Django Unchained isn’t just a product of how the young Tarantino watched a thousand Westerns and came to understand what was in them—it’s also a product of how the young Tarantino watched a thousand Westerns and came to question what wasn’t in them.

So… will your own experience with this movie be “fortunate” or “unfortunate”? With the movies of Quentin Tarantino, as with the movies of Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Sergio Leone, the answer is… “It depends.”

Tarantino has shown me a lot of things I wish I hadn’t seen.

But he’s also given me scenes that shine brightly: In the second Kill Bill film, the moment when a mother tenderly tucks her daughter in to bed before bravely descending to challenge the devil. In Pulp Fiction, the moments when criminals choose mercy for crime lords and thieves. In Django Unchained, when the astonishment of hope fills a slave’s eyes as she realizes that two men have risked everything to save her. And, yes, those moments when we realize that a slave has deceived himself, ruined his chances for freedom, by believing that he belongs in slavery.

Perhaps the character I’ve come to care about most is Tarantino himself who, in spite of his appetite for violence and vengeance, still seems to have a flicker of conscience at work in his imagination. I want to see that flame intensify, before the influence of violence crushes it completely.

Writer and director – Quentin Tarantino; director of photography – Robert Richardson; editor – Fred Raskin; “Django” theme – Luis Enriquez Bacalov; production design – J. Michael Riva; costumes- Sharen Davis; producors – Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone. Starring Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), Jonah Hill (Bag Head No. 2), Quentin Tarantino (Mine Company Employee) and Franco Nero (Bar Patron). The Weinstein Company. 2 hours 45 minutes.

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