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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2012)

9. Django Unchained

There’s a lot to discuss about “Django Unchained.” The film manages to be several very different things. To Tarantino’s credit, it’s exactly what he said it was going to be: A movie that handles racism and slavery, not as a serious “issues” film, but instead as an exploitation movie. On paper, that sounds simple enough. It sounds a lot like “Inglourious Basterds,” truthfully. The big difference lies in the fact that Nazism is a mostly dead philosophy while racism is still a very real problem people grapple with on a daily basis. Despite what idiots like to tell you, the US is still licking the wounds slavery left on the country’s collective psyche. Despite its filmmaker’s intentions, “Django Unchained” still comes off as awfully heavy at times. Did I mention it’s also one of the best things Tarantino has done?

Considering the director’s obvious love of the western, it’s sort of surprising this is the first proper whack QT has taken at it. (“Kill Bill Vol. 2” being an improper whack.) Deconstructions are popular when it comes to “low” genres like westerns, horror, or superheroes. Tarantino doesn’t trade in deconstructions. His work wagers less in “This is what would really happen,” and more in “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” He plays with genres, mashes together divergent influences without doesn’t pick apart. Following this template, “Django Unchained” starts by dropping a blaxploitation hero into a spaghetti western story.

The movie blatantly trades in the styles and conventions of the spaghetti western. Early in the movie, the director doubles down on dramatic crash-pans and side-swipes before thankfully dialing that back for the reminder of the film. You’re probably so use to seeing morally ambiguous heroes in Tarantino’s films that you might not even notice its use here is probably a deliberate reference. The surreal elements and religious satire so prominent in those classic films, especially in the wake of the original “Django,” gets a few passing reference. This is most notable in a one-off moment of M.C. Gainey's slave overseer marching around with Bible pages stitched to his shirt, a delightfully off-beat element. The genre’s trademark homoerotic undertones and torture sequences are combined into one of the more blunt would-be castration scenes in recent memory. Characters often lounge around dusty rock formations, a setting that could just as much be in Texas as Spain. The gun training montage is actually less out of Italian western and more of a throwback to classic American westerns, since Sabata and Sartana were the greatest marksmen in the world to begin with. The entire winter sequence seems to owe quite a bit to “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” at least on a visual level. The “lone hero rides into a troubled town” archetype is re-imagined in the last act, with the town substituted with a massive plantation. The writer even slips in many references to classic German folklore, just for variety.

Not to mention the glorious, operatic bloodshed. Spaghetti westerns, and the original “Django” in particular, were noted for splashing a whole lot of red into the traditional browns and oranges of the western. “Django Unchained” pushes that even further over the top. Gunshots results in giant clouds of red spraying everywhere. Huge ribbons of bright red gore dance through the air, exploding out of every exposed vein. An entire room is quite literally painted red with blood. The level of cartoonish violence in “Kill Bill” are applied to bullets and holsters gun-play. It’s awesome. A massive gunfight that explodes at the end of the second act is nothing short of glorious.

I’m not intentionally avoiding discussing the movie’s racial content. Many term papers will be written about this, no doubt. The crimes of slavery and racism are portrayed with blunt, vicious honesty. Never before has the slash of a whip been so visceral. The festering, bloody wounds of prolonged shackle wearing are fully seen. A gladiator fight between slaves in a swanky club lacks all the stylized action of the gunfights, instead playing as an intentionally cruel, vicious brawl. In a move sure to infuriate Spike Lee, “nigger” is used constantly and every time it stinks of dripping, awful hatred. No moment is more sickening then when a runaway slave is torn apart by a pack of attack dogs. Any one who has accused Tarantino of fetishizing violence on film should probably watch that moment on repeat. His heroes righteous revenge might be comic book-y in their joyous bloodshed but he takes no satisfaction in this moment of violence. The cruelties of slavery are fully illustrated. It’s horrifyingly obvious that the characters in this film and, sadly, in history, saw other human beings as nothing but objects.

But what is the writer/director’s intention here? The film’s villains inflict horrible things on Kerry Washington and other victims, everything from ‘hot boxes’ to terrifying looking iron mask. I’m not sure if Tarantino is holding up the horrors of history to our modern eyes, begging us not to forget, or if he's establishing that the bad guys are really bad guys. These historical acts of cruelty might just be in service of a traditional, pulpy genre exercise. While never quite disrespectful, the script is undeniably sarcastic at times. In a hilarious scene, the funniest moment in the film, a group of raiding racists, would-be Klansman, bitch about the eye-holes cut into their white bags. The movie’s many, extremely funny moments, like a wobbling giant tooth on a spring, are bound to be overlooked. Is Tarantino playing with these historical cruelties just to make audiences uncomfortable? Or, perhaps, the friendship formed between Django and King Schultz is meant to represent the things that bring us together, not force us apart. Is the not-as-exaggerated-as-you'd think historical content making a wider statement? Or does the director just want us to know that slavery was, you know, bad?

Never the less, the effect is cathartic. Action movies are rarely allowed to have any sort of historical context these days. The most recent example I can think of is “Iron Man,” where a superhero flies over, lands right down in a Middle Eastern battleground, and blows up a group of terrorists single-handedly. The Basterds Swiss-cheesed Hitler. Django guns down hordes of evil racists and slavers. “Wish fulfillment” or “revenge fantasy” seem inappropriate, but “escapism” seems to fit. We wish it could be that way. That a single person could turn the tide of history, delivering swift, tried-and-true justice against the greatest evils of the world, past and present. This is what action movies were invented for, exorcising our cultural pains in big, broad strokes.

Enough about the complicated themes of the movie. Let’s talk mechanics. Our writer/director seems to be making up for the dialogue/action ratio leaning heavily towards dialogue in his last two movies. “Django Unchained” is fantastically paced. While you’ve got long dialogue scenes, of course, it never drags. Frequently, it builds tension, leading up to explosive violence. It’s a long movie but never feels it, running wildly from action scene to action scene. As in his best movies, the dialogue is action. It’s also one of the filmmaker’s most visually arresting films, as the rich colors of the Antebellum South are put forth right in front of us. He tinkers around with the visual language of cinema quite a bit. Flashbacks are shown in over-saturated, scratched-up segments, recalling “Grindhouse.” Instead of just mimicking the aesthetics of the older films, Tarantino actually uses his bag of tricks to further the movie’s tones and emotions.

Some have criticized the use of titles in the middle of the movie, coming at the end of a montage sequence. However, I kind of have to applaud that move. If the writer had included everything that happened during that time period, the run-time of his already long movie would have bloated to something like six, seven hours. Some times you just need to cut to the chase as a writer and trust that you’re audience understands this. My favorite stylistic choice is a sudden fade to black, one that lingers a little longer then usual. The audience is left wondering if the movie is actually over for a minute. It serves the same purpose as the “Missing Reel” gag in “Grindhouse,” of skipping the end-of-the-second act/transition towards the climax fat, but is a more disciplined, effective use. Overall, “Django Unchained” shows Tarantino evolving as a filmmaker, not just a stylist.

Of course, the chosen soundtrack is impeccable. Plenty of songs are taken from classic westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, further showing the originators of the movie’s DNA while indulging Quentin's “Spot the reference!” fetish. These choices, most especially the themes from “They Call Him Trinity” and "His Name was King," are deployed at exactly the right moments. The anachronistic use of modern pop music shows up again, the fury of a 2Pac rap powering a vicious shoot out. The movie also makes the best use of a Jim Croce song ever, as “I’ve Got a Name” is repurposed as an anthem of slavery freedom. A former slave, a man treated as an object, has a true name for the first time, has his own life for the first. Uncharacteristically for Tarantino, original songs are used. "Ancora Qui," composed by Ennio Morricone and sang by Elisa Toffoli, is a haunting Italian elegy. John Legend's "Who Did That To You" is expertly used during a key moment, providing a big musical exclamation mark on the end of the second act. Both of these are excellent and, unless you know what they are going in, you’d probably assume they aren’t original compositions.

Christoph Waltz is good goddamn actor, isn’t he? His effortless charm, used so brilliantly as Hans Landa, is played straight here. Several times, he manages to defuse tense moments simply by being smarter then any one else in the room. He talks his way out of deep shit in hilariously verbose blocks of dialogue. The dumb-founded response of the crowds is always funny. Once again, Waltz proves no actor has been better suited to Tarantino's writing then him. His Oscar win for the part was unexpected but truly deserved.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Leonardo DiCapro’s turn as the film’s villain, the foppish, despicable Calvin Candie. He doesn’t give a bad performance, that’s for sure. But I can’t help but be a little disappointed. Perhaps expecting another iconic character like Hans Landa was too much. There are only two moments were DiCaprio gets to show off his strength for villainous performances. The first involves the conversation with the runaway slave, right before the escapee’s brutal execution. DiCaprio’s delivery underline one of the harshest, most disgusting truths about slavery: That people treated other people like property. DiCaprio’s passive-aggressive, relaxed delivery illustrates that perfectly. The second is the actor’s big, show-off moment, the Oscar clip if he had gotten nominated. It’s an impassioned, yelling tirade about servitude that ends with screamed threats of hammer-related violence. Leo’s intensity was so real that, when his hand started bleeding during a take, he didn’t even notice it. The scene plays off the same intensity Scorsese has used so well in films like “The Departed” and “Shutter Island.”

That I was a bit underwhelmed by Calvin Candie probably plays into the fact that he’s not the real, primary villain of the film. He’s a very bad man, to understate it, but he’s not actually the one in control. That duty falls to Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, the head house slave, a man who subtly manipulates those around. Jackson’s initial appearance has him playing the role of a mushed-mouthed, folksy Uncle Tom, with all the “motherfuckers” and “niggas” you expect from Jackson. Slowly, it’s revealed that Stephen notices subtle clues that his master doesn’t. In an incredible moment, Stephen has a one-on-one with Candie, where his façade falls away, and the cold, calculating, observing mind beneath shines through. In a career where Jackson phones it in so often, simply playing up his typical persona, it’s nice to see that the guy actually can act. The casual cruelty in Stephen’s lines and Jackson’s delivery makes him the biggest monster in the movie. You can definitely write a lot, and I expect people will, about internalized racism when it comes to this character.

Among these pedigree performances, Jaime Foxx’s lead role pales slightly. Foxx’s Django isn’t a showy display of acterly skills. Instead, it’s an example of a good actor playing the role to the fullest. Foxx imbues the strong, silent spaghetti western hero type with a fury and passion not typical of the genre. As you’d expect, the supporting cast is filled out with cute cameos and call-backs, among them Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Russ Tamblyn and Amber Tamblyn, and a cameo from the director himself, where Quentin sports maybe the worst Australian accent ever put to film. He, at least, has the good sense to give himself the best death scene in the movie. The favorite has to be a bit part from Franco Nero, the man who originated the title character. He shares a knowing nod with Foxx, symbolically passing the torch from one generation to the next, before exiting the film in the exact same hat and duster he wore in the original “Django.”

“Django Unchained” is, at it's best, a perfect balancing act of tone. While most filmmakers sneak social commentary into their genre films, Tarantino instead builds an exciting, invigorating genre pastiche around hot-button social issues, organically weaving the two together in the process. Few other filmmakers could have pulled it off. The horrible reality of slavery is acknowledged before the film blows through it with a bloody bullet. Ah, maybe that's the message? That things change, for the better? For all our problems, America at least figured out that slavery was wrong and corrected it. Look at that, we've come full circle, back to "Pulp Fiction's" theme of change and redemption. It's too soon to tell if "Django Unchained" will endure like that film has but, for the time being, I'm comfortable in saying it's one of the director's best films.[Grade: A]

When I start this Director Report Card, there was no new Quentin Tarantino movie on the horizon. "Kill Bill Vol. 3" had been officially abandoned. The director had mentioned wanting to do something called "Killer Crow," a project that looked to mash together "Django's" inflammatory racial content with "Inglourious Basterds'" World War II setting. However, I sort of suspect that to become another one of those projects Quentin talks about but never makes, like "Double V Vega" or that Mandarin kung-fu movie.

Instead, just a few weeks ago, news broke on "The Hateful Eight." It was to be a proper western, as opposed to "Django's" 'southern,' and was presumed to be a take on "men on a mission" flicks like "The Magnificent Seven." Just as quickly as that project was announced, it fell apart amid personal betrayal and much shouting. Whether the director is overreacting to a script leak is a topic of debate. Either way, it sounds like he'll be back to work on something again soon. Maybe he'll make that giallo I remember him mentioning in a "Fangoria" interview years ago. Whatever winds up being next, I'm looking forward to it. I've really enjoyed revisiting Tarantino's films, confirming him as still one of my favorite working directors.

I also enjoyed wrapping up a Director Report Card within a month for once. First time that's happened in a while. Anyway, next time we see each other, I'll be talking about the Oscars again. Hoo-ray.

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