Thursday, December 27, 2012

Off the Chain: DJANGO UNCHAINED



Deeply uncomfortable and scarily cathartic, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s first true Western, finding inspiration from 70’s spaghetti and blaxploitation Westerns for a racially charged fantasy of bloody vengeance. The plot, set in the antebellum Deep South, concerns a hardened slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, steely cool) who is freed by the unassumingly dangerous German expatriate Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, in order to assist in hunting down wanted slavers. The hunter doesn’t know their faces, but figures that the slave will identify them, seeing as they are the ones who sold Django and his wife (Kerry Washington, damsel distressed) to separate plantations. In exchange for the help, Schultz promises Django not only his freedom, but an opportunity for revenge and reunion as well. This is a film with many scenes of chains and whips inflicted upon stripped, sweaty, beaten bodies. It summons up ugly history to gorily dismantle the shameful institution (if only in some small, personal way) with a force history does not allow.

As one practiced in genre synthesis, Tarantino makes clear his aesthetic influences while recapitulating and recombining until he finds and elevates core attractions of his favorite genres. Here, he makes simple Western mythology out of volatile parts and unexpected juxtapositions. There’s a hint of his mindset of insatiable cultural appropriation in shots of snowy Sergio Corbucci fields; later, we follow a chain of slaves right out of Richard Fleischer's Mandingo. Drawing upon Western tropes by digging into less well-known (or downright disreputable) subgenres, Tarantino uses his film to reveal heroism and nobility in people usually kept off screen. How often, after all, did John Wayne films even seriously acknowledge slavery, a crucial economic engine and political hot button of the very era in which many of his cowboy epics were set? (Or Clint Eastwood. Or Franco Nero. Or, or, or.) Here, the black man is the hero, freed to exact his revenge, patiently working with a foreigner to set a trap for slimy slavers and steal back his bride.

That’s undeniably thrilling. But Tarantino’s approach can be awfully troubling as well. Though necessary, perhaps, the scenes of slavery and brutality sit awkwardly in such a pulpy setting. And yet there’s such a moral force behind it all. Why shouldn’t we get a kick out of seeing a slave determined to wage a one-man revolt through those determined to dehumanize him? Along the way we meet all manner of folk who are both imbued with Tarantino’s love of colloquial verbiage and an easy despicability. There are plantation owners (Don Johnson), vicious slavers (M. C. Gainey), cruel enforcers (Walton Goggins), and colluding slaves (Samuel L. Jackson in an altogether unexpected and especially tricky opaquely complex role). These characters are dancing around the edges of the plot, which ultimately turns its attention on one particularly charismatically nasty slave owner by the name of Calvin Candie who is played in a nice bit of unexpected casting by Leonardo DiCaprio. Calvin owns a large, notorious plantation called Candieland (get it?) that he proudly uses as a base for making money off of his slaves through prostitution and death matches. DiCaprio is clearly having fun (which, come to think of it, is a problem) and makes for a scary funny foil.

What’s disappointing is that the characters (especially the supporting ones) are thinner and the genre play is simpler and more surface-level than the usual Tarantino effort. His sure ear for dialogue turns tinny time and again, with some more overtly comedic set pieces galumphing embarrassingly. A scene in which Ku Klux Klan members avant la lettre argue about the size and spacing of eyeholes in their white hoods is just plain off tonally. Where he usually wields broad material in great crowd-pleasing gasps that don’t cheat fine thematic points and nuanced characterization, here he just has the brusque sensations. However painterly and powerful is an image of a pure white cotton field suddenly spotted with red blood, this is a film in which the human body has exploding baggies of red syrup inside and in which only simple catharsis and horror comes out with the gobs of viscera splattered about. (Though if anyone voices complaint about Tarantino’s approach to violence, let it be said that at least he modulates tone exceedingly well in its portrayal. Violence to slaves is gruesome; violence to slavers is a release.) Unlike his last film, Inglourious Basterds, which told an alternate-history World War II story through perfectly written scenes working on many levels at once, this historical genre picture is fairly one-note. I was occasionally entertained and delighted by the usual pleasures of the genre and certainly unsettled by the intensity of the slavery aspects of the plot, but was disappointed in the lack of deeper engagement or coherent commitment to genre subversion.

And then, there came a time when I found myself glad I hadn’t written the film off as mere uneven entertainment and provocation. There’s a sequence near the end of the picture that’s pure Tarantino, a long sizzle of suspense in which violence and surprise lie ticking, explosion fully possible at any moment. The suspense comes not just from a dangerous situation, but from the dangerous situation that’s almost, but not quite, occurring, existing as mere possibility that is deeply imbedded within character and plot in such a way that the audience knows deep down that this scene will not end with the same number of living characters that there were at its start. This is the kind of smart, writerly standoff that Tarantino does best and has within it an excitement and layered dexterity that I found missing in the rest of the film. Django Unchained frees itself from a bumpy buildup to go out with a (strangely doubled) flourish of flashy, almost frightfully effective and satisfying violence that just about justifies the film's existence and christens Foxx's Django a true new Western hero. Still, as good as it can be and as rousing some of the finale is, I’d have liked to see a sharper, deeper film that could have put to better use the unstable dynamite of its plot elements instead of relying on easy outrage and surface cool.

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