Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tarantino Deconstructs Slavery in Django Unchained

     When a new Tarantino film is announced, it's like an unexpected and surprising gift. The first question is usually the same: what subject will be the focus of his signature and singular style? In 1997, Jackie Brown was his homage to the Pam Grier Blaxploitation flicks of the 1970's. Six years later, we got the wonderful Kill Bill, the ultra-bloody and winking nod to the Kung-Fu films of Asian cinema that he was infatuated with during his childhood.  Then just three years ago, Inglorious Basterds--the best film of 2009--was a World War II revenge fantasy that was as funny as it was exciting. Django Unchained, released on Christmas day, is his newest, a love-letter to the Spaghetti Westerns of yore with a slavery-focused plot that doesn't pretend to be politically correct: the N-word flows more freely than the brimming blood--and there is a lot of blood. What it all amounts to is a fun and simple film that doesn't rank among the director's best work but is still one of the more entertaining and stylistic films of the year.
     Jaime Foxx is the titular character, Django, and he and his wife are slaves that get split up in a trade. While he's being transported with a group of other chained slaves, we meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist/bounty hunter who needs Django to identify a trio of brothers that have large bounties on their heads. So he buys and frees him, and the two team up in buddy-comedy style fashion. The two work well of each other. Foxx plays Django as a quiet man on a mission. Will Smith was actually offered the role of Django, but Foxx is a better choice: his gruff stares and I've-been-through-everything confidence makes you hopeful for his inevitable revenge. Waltz, just as he chewed every scene in Inglorious Basterds, is the best aspect of Django. But that's just as much a testament to Tarantino's script, specifically his signature dialogue that allows for comical pauses and mannerisms that really suit Waltz's acting style.
     The first half of Django Unchained has some comical scenes that are hit-or-miss. It's great first meeting Dr. Schultz, with his horse carriage that has a large fake tooth on a spring on top, swinging back and forth signifying that he's a dentist. A less funny scene involves some Klanish men complaining on and on about how they can't see out of their white hood eye holes because the notches are not cut large enough. It's not unfunny because it's offensive--it's just repetitive. Though there is something to be said about how uncomfortable it is laughing at certain aspects of Django in a theater with a bunch of other white people. No punches are pulled: the N-word is used in all matter of scenes, joking or serious. But this is how these men and women would talk during this time period in this location. They wouldn't hesitate using this type of language without even thinking twice about it, just like we don't think twice about any normal word we use on a daily basis as Americans living in the year (almost) 2013. Spike Lee can cry all he wants--it's an honest and unflinching look at certain aspects of the horrors of slavery.
     Django really picks up when our heroic duo enters "Candy Land", a plantation where Django's wife is being held. It's called that because it's owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a horrific person whose love for racism is only outmatched by his love for "Mandingo" fighting, a form of battling to the death between two black slaves for entertainment of white folk. Dicaprio's performance is definitely a highlight of Django, though playing a villain in a Tarantino film seems not too difficult given the screenwriter's eye for vicious and violent characters. Another high (and surprising) point is the performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays Candie's so-called "House Ni**er", a man with tons of self pity, a black man who is disgusted by black people. When Django rides into Candy Land on a horse (since he is a free man due to Dr. Schultz), Jackson's reaction and performance (for the rest of the film, really) is funny and transfixing.
     Like in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django Unchained builds inevitable Tarantino tension to a final showdown that involves over-the-top violence and hundreds of gallons of blood. The killings are not too serious or realistic: gunshot wounds spurt gobs of blood that would fill up a bathtub, almost like a bullet entering the body would shoot out every ounce of plasma out of the sizzling hole. It's cartoonish and eventually grows a bit tiresome, mainly because the shootouts are not quite as innovate as the large-scale combat in Kill Bill Vol 1. or the intimate basement bar scene in Inglorious Basterds. And that's a good sum up about how I feel about Django Unchained: it's got the typical moments of  fun brilliance that Tarantino is known for, but it never really matches the highs of his previous cinematic oeuvre, and at nearly three hours, it's a bit overlong too.
     Another problem with the film: for a movie called "Django Unchained", you would think the character of Django would become "unchained", become empowered, become something larger than himself. But that doesn't really happen. It's more of a white man's fantasy film: the white Dr. Schultz frees Django, he helps Django, and when an important moment of standing up to tyranny occurs, its the white Dr. Schultz that takes action instead of the former slave. Foxx's Django rarely does anything meaningful in regards to taking control of his situation. He's perfectly happy with Schultz leading the way. Ultimately, though, this is just a fun film about slavery (seems like an oxymoron) that is full of both horror and humor. I just wish Django had taken a more serious stand against that horror.     (B+)

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