DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012, directed by Quentin Tarantino, 165 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Discussing the trailer to Django Unchained before its release, I evoked a few chuckles from friends with the comment, “It looks like a Wayans Brothers spoof of Tarantino films.” After seeing Django Unchained in its entirety, the film barely outruns that perception; in many ways Django Unchained is a Tarantino film almost to the point of parody. The only thing missing is the element of surprise, once the cornerstone of the Tarantino brand.
Without surprise, what is left to define Tarantino? Explosive violence, profane exclamations, attempted career resurrections of out-of-favor actors and odd pop tunes exhumed for the soundtrack. Django hits all those notes, just like Inglorious Bastards, Death Proof and Kill Bill did before it. But each of these gimmicks deliver a little less than before. As Tarantino gives his audience all the things they expect from his brand, it serves to make the possibilities in Django seem more constrained and predictable than ever. The actions of the slave traders and flesh merchants we meet demand violent retribution, and there is little doubt that this is the fate our director will make sure they meet.
Presumably an homage to the Italian spaghetti westerns Tarantino loves, the character of Django is no longer the lone wolf who walks out of the desert and deals vigilante justice, here he is a slave (Jaime Foxx) set free by the German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Dr. Schultz needs Django to identify The Brittle Brothers who are wanted dead or alive. After Django earns his freedom, Schultz, in a rare moment of sentimentality, agrees to escort him to Mississippi to rescue Django’s wife “Broomhilda” who has been sold to Candyland plantation/sex farm.
With the premise quickly in place, that is just what happens: they first stop at Big Daddy’s plantation (Don Johnson, lost behind some Custer-type whiskers) to shoot down those Brittles, then a montage of killings before they head to the plantation of Calvin Candie, where there’s gonna be a lot of talking before Django and Dr. Schultz can finally free Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
How much talking? At 165 minutes, Django Unchained is the longest of Tarantino’s epics and while there are all sorts of asides, the plotting is pretty minimal. The talking mainly comes from Waltz’s Schultz, an obvious stand-in for Tarantino’s own verbosity. The charismatic Waltz dominates the film, much like you would imagine the less-elegant director himself dominating a dinner party, and the focus on Schultz comes at the expense of the title character, Django himself. Django does get to dress fancy and shoot down bad guys to a hip-hop soundtrack, but even with a nearly three-hour running time, Tarantino never does more than sketch in a character for Foxx to play. In fact, he veers dangerously close to the “magical Negro” characters conservative Hollywood loves, allowing Dr. Schulz to dignify his dirty profession as a bounty hunter with a veil of righteousness thanks to the help of Django’s supernatural skills as a marksmen.
As for the whole hot-button issue of our nation’s undigested history of slavery, Tarantino would like to think he delivers something deeper than Richard Fleischer’s much-derided 1975 film Mandingo, but I’m not sure how that is true. Showing slavery in all its violence may be “honest’ but it does little to illustrate its lingering effects. It’s funny, while making the media rounds Tarantino opined that today’s prison system is the modern form of slavery. An intriguing idea, the kind of subversive subtext that B-movie makers of the 70s might have woven imperceptibly into their films, but it is exactly the type of richer theme that is sadly missing in Django‘s scatter-shot, exploitative strategy.
While Tarantino can still deliver giggle-worthy conversation (a scene with KKK members complaining about their hoods hampering visibility could have been ghost-written by Mel Brooks) the characters Tarantino creates have never been more empty. Each characters is defined by their context in the action; Django is a man driven by revenge, Candie is driven by evil and Schultz is driven by money and guilt, but their lives beyond their roles in this chess game lie invisible. A filmmaker can get away with such under-written character in an 80 minute grindhouse feature but when you double that length and stock the film with Hollywood’s finest actors, Tarantino’s limitations become all too clear.
It makes one think Tarantino hit a personal fork in the road when he released Jackie Brown in 1997, his follow-up to the phenomenal success of Pulp Fiction. At the time, Jackie Brown met with mixed response both critically and commercially, but in retrospect it is the most emotionally engaging of Tarantino’s films. The characters of Max and Jackie that Robert Forster and Pam Grier create bring a feeling a life and melancholy that gives their final parting a well-earned sentimental sting. Tarantino’s subsequent long and frustrating attempt to establish himself as an actor led to a six year break between films, and when Tarantino returned with Kill Bill Pt. 1, his characters had taken on a cartoon-ish dimension that has kept us from identifying with them in all but our wildest fantasies.
It seems like a particular loss; much of what made Taranino’s opening trio of films so unique was the unexpected way real-life would creep into them, whether it was bank robbers discussing Madonna in Reservoir Dogs, Travolta’s anxiousness escorting the boss’ beautiful girlfriend in Pulp Fiction or the lazy TV watching in Jackie Brown, these films seemed to breath the same air as the audience. Is it because as a Hollywood titan, Tarantino no longer lives in our world’ As collaborators like Roger Avery and Elmore Leonard have fallen to the waist-side, has Quentin traveled too far up his own movie-obsessed ass to have a more expansive perspective?
Another frisson that has disappeared pertains to the characters who carry out his violent scenarios. Reservoir / Pulp / Jackie put us in the sidecar with career criminals and when the giddy thrill of violence broke out, it came with the knowledge that we were accepting the indefensible viewpoint of the outlaw. It made the audience feel a little dirty and caught Quentin a lot of flack in the media. Starting with Kill Bill, his films’ protagonists are extravagantly justified in their violence: first their targets are the killers of an unborn fetus (in church no less!) followed by Nazis and then topped-off slave holders! While his films are as violent as ever (in fact the head shots in Django release an almost comic amount of projectile blood-splatter), Tarantino has done everything he can to make the targets socially acceptable.
If you can get past the narcissism that makes it so easy to imagine a slobbering Tarantino at the edge of each frame reveling in the carnage, Django Unchained has a lot of talent on display. Isolated scenes, like the early face-off that develops when Dr. Schultz brings Django into the town saloon, work like well-told jokes, often ending with amusing violent punch lines. Cinematographer Rob Richardson, who has worked with Oliver Stone, Scorsese and Errol Morris, imbues the film with earthy brown tones of mud and oak, and DiCaprio and Laura Cayouette make the most in their roles as regally incestuous siblings. Standing out from all this is a performance by Samuel L. Jackson, going new places in the story’s juiciest role as Candie’s loyal “House Negro” Stephen (his name a tribute to Stepin Fetchit perhaps?).
Each pleasure is met with pain though, and it seems particularly wasteful that a giant cast of film-lovers’ favorites get introduced and forgotten. Someday Tarantino should make a film with Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn and Ted Neely but they should be given whole characters to play, not just left to languish as indistinguishable guys behind beards who get shot off their horses. Most surprisingly, the appearance of international film star Franco Nero, Corbucci’s original Django, is a mere walk on. Sadly even on a film geek level, Django Unchained lets us down.
But for the most undemanding Tarantino fan, Django Unchained should satiate their modest expectations: guns, torturous violence, rhythmic and profane dialogue, and Quentin’s favorite tunes blasting through the sound system. It delivers what is promised, Django is indeed unchained but Tarantino himself seems hopelessly bound, a prisoner to the narrowest conception of his most salable attributes.