Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED

I haven’t fully written my opinion on a film in awhile because I’ve
grown to feel that film criticism — or criticism in general — can be
like starting a fight; sometimes critics take their criticisms too
seriously (like me, previously unbeknownst to me) and deflate the films
they discuss or themselves feel deflated if their view and articulation
does not resonate with the world. These days I feel like writing about
anything related to cinema can only be viewed as an extension of my own
creative mind, so before you read this, know that this will be, maybe,
some unusual type of write-up on Quentin Tarantino’s latest film – of
which I’m sure you are anticipating or have seen and have probably
liked because it’s a likable film.

Prior to the 1PM advanced screening showing that my wife and I snuck
into this afternoon, I had seen the seven films by Quentin Tarantino,
most of them more than once (Death Proof being the only exclusion). If
you are unfamiliar with his work, the man’s style hearkens back to and
is a hodgepodge of cinema past and present. This means spaghetti
Westerns (Sergio Leone, Franco Nero and Sam Peckinpah), the Nouveau
Vague (until now, mostly Jean-Luc Godard, but this film reminisces
Francois Truffaut more), the Samurai films of Tomu Uchida and Hiroshi
Inagaki, and others – even Blaxploitation. That’s why when you enter a
film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, you should try to
remind yourself not to feel offended during the movie you’re about to
watch. Because his mind, his heart, his vision is all deeply founded in
cinema. He is rooted in it. So when you hear his overt use of the word
n-gger it isn’t that he is too cavalier about it – it’s because
filmmakers before him have decided that it was okay – because he
relates back to them for clarity – because he grew up watching and
loving those movies. That’s what I believe is the case, anyway, and if
so, it allows his films to be as sprawling and carefree as he is.

In Django Unchained’s case, it gets in the way of the film having a
real moral or emotional catharsis, but as was Inglourious Basterds this
is a sort-of wonky look at a rough patch in history with the intention
to send the audience home feeling like they’ve won, like mankind has
won. Here, I feel as if Jamie Foxx’s carnation of Django wasn’t raw
enough, wasn’t a slave enough, to get the hairs on the back of my neck
to stand up the moment he succeeds. He succeeds often – he is the
stallion, the hero climbing the mountain to slay the dragon and free
the princess, he is Quentin Tarantino’s chosen character for Quentin
Tarantino’s film, and that means you’ll have to like him, and that
he’ll do all the things Tarantino wants his good guy to do. He’ll do
everything you expect him to do, and in that, Jamie Foxx’s beautiful,
reflective eyes and nice charisma gets the film by with the tone I
think Quentin Tarantino intended this film to have, and that’s a kind
of tongue-in-cheek, but violently harsh tone with, of course,
victorious undertones.

However, there are moments where you’ll wonder where he’ll go with it.
An hour* into the film, Dr. King Schultz and Django enter Calvin
Candie’s house — on a cotton plantation, with a plan to get Django’s
wife Broomhilda from him — to see, before them, two Mandingos (they
are called) fighting each other to the death. For game. And it is
violent. And it is brutal. To see and feel – and what isn’t seen is
heard, and what isn’t heard is still thought and felt. This is how
we’re introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s villain.

The writing/justification for his character’s wild behaviour isn’t
quite understood. I mean, it is written to be understood – his
character hasn’t left the plantation all his life, it’s a time before
any sort of society or real civilization, at least to him. He is very
insecure, very insecure, and that is an issue too. Is this because the
times made him that way — that his situation was simply as ruinous for
his mind as the time was for his slaves’? If so, Quentin Tarantino
spares no expense allowing us to feel sorry for his antagonist – or
anyone like him. It’s very black and white and right here Tarantino is
going black, baby – even Dr. King Schultz’s charisma is almost
identical to that of Col. Hans Landa’s, but because the character sides
(even if incidentally) with the slaves (ie. Django) his actions, the
same ones he would take to the Jews in Inglourious Basterds, are
considered triumphant. It’s moralistically slippery because its only
stance is a superficial one, a judgmental one, and therein lies the
film’s only major problem – its lack of humanity.

Storytelling and dialogue have always been Tarantino’s strong suit.
While his tale of vengeance is fully realized, narratively, I feel the
cleverness in Tarantino’s verbosity wavering – at least in these
historical pieces. I feel he’s trapping himself in the times, using
language that might be relevant, might be clever, might even be funny,
but it’s mostly flowery and possesses not an idea, but a point – a
point his character wants to make, and none of them really have
anything to say except to each other, and that just leads to more plot.
That’s okay – that makes a movie pass by really fast if it has panache,
and this does, Tarantino’s films always will – but it does lack that
soul quality. (Maybe if someone more deeply rooted themselves in the
lead role the film would have possessed more humanity – well it would
have – but it would have just skated over the underlying scriptural
issue.)The best actors in the film do bring a lot of themselves into
their roles and that helps bring to life the dark, yet colorful cast of
characters: Christoph Waltz is wonderfully composed and precise as the
sharp-shooting Dr. King Schultz, Leonardo DiCaprio (whose performance
is ever growing on me) is wild and triumphant, but also edgier than
I’ve ever seen as Calvin Candie, and Samuel L. Jackson is perhaps the
most interesting as Stephen, who appears to be – or at least I
interpreted him as – the sadistic male version of Hattie McDaniel’s
mammie from Gone With The Wind; when he cries at the end, you will
laugh and be mind-blown. These are three great performances.

As I said before, I think Quentin Tarantino is absolved from any
vilification, morally or otherwise. I think his intentions are as pure
as cinema, but this is a daunting film, and while you can play with any
subject matter to entertaining effect, it’s clear to me that with
stories like this one, ones where all of its characters are living some
sort of hell, you have to have humanity; you have to try and understand
people. Sometimes he’s rather play a Rick Ross song to convey his
protagonist’s charged blood-lust instead of his face – and that’s okay.
(Actually, the song that plays was produced by Jamie Foxx, so in a way
that is him. By some extension, it’s all him.) For the most part, the
violence of the film is gruesome – a hot topic for a lot of people to
talk about because it has effected them all. Unfortunately, very few
people seem to be raving how satisfying the film was. People can take
pain but not unless you give them the right pleasure, and sadly that
ending felt too much like artifice. He built up something real – the
violence, too, was real – but ended it so foolishly, like a cartoon.

So, it is my opinion that Django Unchained is entertaining and has a
lot of things to be enjoyed. There’s beauty (Robert Richardson’s
cinematography is picturesque), there’s excitement (the story unfolds
interestingly enough, it moves along) and is an undeniably finely tuned
and well put together motion picture. Ultimately though, there’s
nothing more to think about when those credits close, save a few of the
scenes and the acting throughout. Oh, and of course the technical
production – for the beautiful homage of a world they all created
through collaboration. All of them.

* The first hour is one in which Django and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) get to know each other after the former is bought by the latter in the film’s opening scene. You will notice that the slave walking montage that plays with the opening credits features a lot of panoramic shots, far-zooms, cinematic playfulness and beauty. This will be featured a lot in the film to fine effect. Not quite how Robert Altman handled the lens, but still not bad.

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