December 28, 2012

Django Unchained (12/28/2012)

Lettergrade: A-

Clocking in at 2 hours and 46 minutes, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained fits the characterization that I've had for his last several pictures, namely that it's very talky and long-winded, but with several sensational moments of payoff.

I'm actually not a huge Tarantino devotee myself, but I've seen most of his movies at least once, and I generally like them.  This new one is a bit more like 2009's Inglourious Basterds than his earlier flicks in that it tells more of a mature, linear story, largely free of kitsch and the retro film tricks of Kill Bill and Death Proof.  Like all his pictures, however, it glides smoothly from scenes that are light and comedic into some extremely dark and upsetting territory.

Set in the American south just before the Civil War, it is part blaxploitation movie, part homage to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and (as his last several movies have been) all spaghetti western.  Although I'm tempted to call it historical farce - or at the very least, nothing like a credible history lesson - its depiction of American slavery and the men who profited from it is brutal and disturbing.  There are whippings, scenes of torture, messy gun-shot wounds, and slaves forced to kill each other with their bare-hands.  The N-word is deployed countless dozens of times… There's been a lot of controversy about  that, but I think of how Mel Brooks defended its use in his 1974 classic Blazing Saddles by explaining that he used the word in a way that is historically correct:  The cowboys and town-folk all hated Sheriff Bart in that movie solely because of his race.  They wanted to denigrate and dehumanize him, so they called him "nigger," a word that we now interpret as showing bigotry and hatred on the part of those who use it.  The characters in Django are not timid about doing the same.

The general plot of the movie is relatively simple when you break it down, as I suppose all of Tarantino's plots really are at their core. As the picture opens, smooth-talking German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Basterds' unforgettable Christoph Waltz) forcibly acquires the enslaved Django (Jamie Fox) in order to help him identify three wanted men who are worth a good deal of money.  Schultz's deal with Django is that he'll be rewarded with a percentage of the bounty plus his freedom once the men are bought in.  While on the hunt, Django shares that he is married to another slave (Kerry Washington), but their former owner found out and sold them to different plantations in an act of cruelty.  Schultz recognizes Django as an excellent marksman and a solid partner, and offers a further deal:  If he spends the winter working with him, collecting bounties and making money, in the spring he'll go to Mississippi with him and help him find his wife.  "Kill white people and get paid for it?," Django asks. "What's not to like?"

Although the main cast is generally fantastic, it's Leonardo DiCaprio as the particularly sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie, and a nearly unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson as his somehow even more terrifying head-slave Stephen that steal the movie.  The smaller roles are populated with various actors from cinema-past… such as Italian actor Franco Nero, who played the title role in an earlier, completely unrelated spaghetti western called Django from 1966, and Russ Tamblyn, sort-of reprising his title role from 1965's Son Of A Gunfighter alongside his daughter Amber Tamblyn, who is credited as "Daughter Of  A Son Of A Gunfighter" at the end.  These cameos largely provide in-jokes and references that completely sail past me unnoticed, as I have little more than casual knowledge of any of these pictures to begin with.

Part of the mystique of Tarantino's work during the 90s was that since he hadn't actually made that many movies yet, each one seemed to have an almost seismic impact on popular culture, and greatly influenced films that would be made for several years after (sometimes resulting in some fairly terrible movie trends indeed!).  A thought I had during Django is that now that he's making films a little more frequently (there have been five pictures since 2003 alone, vs. only three in the 90s), the power of a new one coming out feels a bit reduced, and his tricks and patterns are starting to become a little more detectable.  DiCaprio has a big, menacing speech at a dinner table about 3/4s of the way through Django that seems to have come from the same template Tarantino used to write David Carradine's big speech toward the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, even with a few lines that are similar.  Both are dramatically excellent, mind you, but there are certain techniques - elliptical story-telling centering around a larger thematic point, et al - that are starting to feel like Tarantino standards rather than fresh surprises.

And here's something else… A Tarantino technique that has been used several times now is to have his characters allude to some big fight or a battle that's going to happen at some other location later... only to have the conflict abruptly end right then and there, usually with one character suddenly killing the other.  Early in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox agree to delay their fight to the death until that night so her daughter won't be around to witness it... only to have that agreement immediately broken with a drawn pistol.  Likewise, at the end of  Kill Bill Vol. 2, Thurman and Carradine determine that they should meet at a private beach to finish their business once and for-all, suggesting an epic battle royale to come… only to have her surprise him with the fabled five point palm-exploding heart technique.  There's a scene in the second half of Django that repeats this trick again:  Fox convinces his Australian captors that there's a large bounty to be collected if they help him kill or capture a group held-up at a nearby plantation, suggesting a big action scene that's about to happen there in the next scene.  The temptation is too great for the Australians, so they unlock his cage… and are immediately sorry that they did.  

My buddy Shaun saw the movie the same day I did, and commented that while he liked it a great deal, it felt like Tarantino was "genre-hopping" a bit.  (Remember what he did with WWII movies in Inglourious Basterds?  Well, he's doing it again in the pre-Civil War American south!).  I don't think that's entirely unfair, but again, I think he orchestrates it all for such satisfying and memorable payoff that his wearing of his influences on his sleeve doesn't really bother me.  In fact, it's a big part of the charm.  Tarantino's movies have always been made up of redigested bits of other movies as well as various incongruent nuggets of pop-culture.  I don't mind that his soundtracks are made up of songs and scores from other movies, for example, because he's perverted and repurposed them into some highly entertaining new context.

That kind of thing is essentially what his work is largely about anyway, be it with actors, dialogue, storylines, music or sound effects.  It's interesting because more than any other filmmaker who is working presently, his pictures, while they all have sustainable plots and very effective dramatic arcs on their own, are as much about the time that he himself spent watching genre movies on endless loops as a kid, as they are about whatever happens on screen.

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