Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

Alternate Title:  Tarantino Unleashed

One sentence synopsis:  A former slave and a German dentist team up to bring down criminal slavocrats in the Antebellum South.

Things Havoc liked:  I can take or leave most of Quentin Tarantino's films. Pulp Fiction aside, his movies are always elaborate affairs that try to ride the line between a glorious spectacle and a colossal train-wreck, not always with success. And as Tarantino has grown older, his tendency to push his films to the limit of what a movie structure will support has only become stronger, with results such as 2009's Inglorious Basterds, a painfully uneven film that alternated scenes of incredible tension and skill with scenes torn directly from the giggling 13-year-old parts of Tarantino's brain. Yet it can't be denied that somewhere beneath the winking homages, self-indulgent dialogue and immature artifice, Tarantino is an extremely skilled director and writer, who seems to visualize movies in a way that many have tried to imitate (I'm looking at you, David Mamet), but never have successfully replicated. And so we come to Django Unchained.

Good directors tend to attract good actors to work for them, and Tarantino is no exception. Django Unchained employs the services of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Don Johnson, alongside Tarantino regulars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, all portraying various larger-than-life characters with appropriately weird manners of speech and motivations, inhabiting a stylized version of the late 1850s South. Waltz, in particular, is absolutely superb (as he was in Inglorious Basterds), playing a German Dentist-turned-Bounty Hunter comprised of equal parts Doc Holiday and John Brown. Despite the absurdity of his character's existence, he is never anything but straight with the material, indulging neither in histrionics nor even in outright rudeness as he cheerfully guns down criminals and scum of various sort. It is he who inducts vengeful slave Django (Foxx) into the business of bounty hunting, a role which Foxx seems to have decided to play via channeling his character from Collateral. Given the outright insanity going on around these two however, this is not a terrible choice, and Foxx manages to hold the movie down with a simple glassy-eyed stare and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, eschewing the comic lunacy that Brad Pitt brought to his starring role in Basterds.

The antagonists are equally good. DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a sadistic monster of a plantation owner cloaked in all the charm of southern gentility, who not only engages in slavery on a grand and horrific scale, but promotes a barbaric form of slave-gladiating called Mandingo, in which strong slaves beat one another to death for the pleasure (and wagers) of their owners. DiCaprio's performance is nothing terribly nuanced, but he manages to evoke the slimy bastard aspects of the character without ever turning completely into a Bond villain, grounding the character in something we could actually picture existing in the antebellum South. But far more interesting is Jackson, known normally for over-the-top screaming tirades and badass one liners, who here plays Stephen, a suspicious, elderly slave who serves as DiCaprio's Head House Slave and chief confidante. I have seen Samuel L. Jackson do strange things in movies (usually Tarantino ones), but I've never seen anything like this character before, an ingratiating, submissive Uncle Tom-style pastiche who moreso even than Candie himself, seems hellbent on ensuring that the plantation system persists in all ways despite the efforts of Foxx and Waltz to subvert it. A superb sequence halfway through the film reveals the extent to which Stephen has internalized the slave system, to the point where even the borderline sociopathic Candie is entirely reliant on Stephen to help maintain order within his house.  Indeed, it is Stephen, in many ways, who serves as the primary antagonist of the film.

Tarantino's intent with Django Unchained was to make a spaghetti western about slavery, and in all the hullaballoo around the latter part of that statement, the former part, I fear, has been forgotten. As usual, when Tarantino wants to pay homage to an older genre of filmmaking, he is nigh-flawless. The soundtrack features songs by (among others) Ennio Morricone himself, as well as a number of contemporary pieces to punctuate more tongue-in-cheek moments. The cinematography is straight out of a 60s Eastwood western, with spontaneous super-zooms and mid-scene title crawls. This isn't to say that the film is bereft of more modern elements however, as Tarantino never misses an opportunity to poke fun at the absurdity of everything, be it either with a single line ("You chose to wear that?") or an entire scene (Lynch mobs and their masks). And all along, Tarantino maintains a wonderful rhythm, never skimping on blood and gore when appropriate, yet perfectly capable of drawing great tension out of a scene that consists of nothing but polite dialogue.

Things Havoc disliked:  And then, just like that, it all falls apart.

I had a vague premonition that this might happen. All through the first two hours of this enormous film, I could practically see Tarantino forcing himself to behave, to focus, to restrain his usual obsession with extreme spectacle and ludicrous ultra violence. You could almost feel the tension in between the shots, as Tarantino gritted his teeth and restrained his impulses, letting out only the occasional, sudden explosion of violence. It was an admirable effort, one greater than that evidenced in Tarantino's two previous films, but sadly the leopard cannot change its spots, and Tarantino's restraint could only hold for so long. And when that restraint fails... oh brother, this becomes an entirely different film.

In the space of thirty seconds, what had once been an entertaining, semi-farcical, semi-realistic deconstruction of Gone-With-the-Wind, Merry Plantation hagiographies of the Old South was transformed before my eyes into an orgiastic bloodfest of proportions that made the machine gunning of Hitler in Inglorious Basterds look subtle. Literally shedding large chunks of the main cast, the movie morphed into a crude revenge flick, hateful and contemptuous of all of its characters, setting, and large sections of the audience watching it. It was as though Tarantino, having held out for so long, simply could not control himself any longer, and hurled every violent impulse that crossed his mind onto the screen, whether his movie had earned these things or not.  It's not as if I'm against movie violence, nor as though the movie had previously been PG-rated, but the sudden downshift the movie takes into full on insanity is so thunderously at odds with everything it had previously done that the result is to torpedo the entire film. The last 30 minutes or so play out as an escalating series of violent catastrophes, wherein the movie robs itself of all pretenses of wit or interest by the simple means of eliminating the characters that previously interested us, and mutilating the character of those that it doesn't eliminate. By the end of the film, characters are killing other characters simply because they are white, or because Tarantino thought it would be funny (or perhaps both), entirely discarding everything that it had spent the last two hours laboriously establishing.

Final thoughts:   Spike Lee, in explaining why he did not intend to go see this film, described it as disrespectful to his ancestors, and demeaning to the tragedy of slavery. I tend not to take seriously the opinions of those who would criticize movies they haven't seen, but in this case, I actually see his point. The Washington Times, meanwhile, lambasted this film as hateful, racist twaddle that treats all white people, irrespective of guilt, as devils to be purged from existence. As before, I tend not to take seriously the opinions of authors who go on to complain about liberals being deluded adherents to an anti-white agenda, yet in this particular case, I can once more see the point. For much of its length, the movie successfully rode the line between offensive and insightful.  Yet having watched it suffer the cinematic equivalent of an apoplectic fit in the middle of a scene and vomit all over its own shoes, I cannot judge it in the context that I was prepared to even ten minutes before that fateful moment.  Despite this, it remains true that the first 80% of the film is something of a return to form for Tarantino, reminiscent of his better work of years past. What, ultimately, you make of this odd combination will have to be up to you, as even now, a full day later, I have difficulty determining if I liked the movie or not.

"I couldn't resist," says a character in this film at the very moment of catastrophe, as though Tarantino knew, on some level, what had happened, and was offering us his explanation. But while that explanation may well be the truth, we the viewers are still left standing dazed in the aftermath of Tarantino's explosive derailment, peering through the wreckage to try and discern what it was we were enjoying so much just a few short minutes before.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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