At one point during “Django Unchained” I leaned over to Karolyn and whispered, “Only Tarantino has the guts to tell the truth about America.” Which, in retrospect, seems like an odd thing to say. After all, there are many truths about America. What’s more, the film is another one of the aging “enfant terrible’s” provocative re-imaginings of history, this time set in antebellum America instead of the Nazi-era Europe of “Inglourious Basterds.” Still, fiction though it is, I can’t recall another film that conveys so viscerally the brutal truths of slavery: the whippings, the hot box, the man torn apart by dogs.
As always with Tarantino, “Django Unchained” is as much about movie love as it is about anything else, including American slavery. The idea here is to remix all sorts of pop things in a very provocative, hip-hop kind of way: Blaxploitation pictures, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge movies, damsel-in-distress fairy tales, Godard, Hawks, even the myth of Brunhilde. Toss in some fun cameos (Don Johnson, Tom Wopat and one I’m not gonna give away) and a soundtrack featuring the great Ennio Morricone, James Brown and 2Pac, even Jim Croce.
Though I’m not entirely without reservations about the results, as a longtime fan I mainly think about “Django Unchained” what I always do about his work. It kicks life into cinema when things threaten to become too staid. His pictures are exemplars of the creative process: take what you love and make your own thing out of it.
And, crucially, he always wants to give you something fun.
If he’s no longer playing with structure like he used to, he’s still playing with forms. This is his first Western. There's a creation here that pleases me as much as anything he's ever done: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German in America in 1858. (Did we really need that title letting us know that it’s “two years before the Civil War”?) As an outsider, Schultz sees clearly the evil of slavery. He’s a good instance of wit and intelligence up against stupidity, unfailingly polite even as he blows his opponents away. Tarantino’s emphatically a writer-director, and Christoph Waltz delights in the music of his language.
A dentist turned bounty hunter, Schultz rolls out of the dark on his wagon as a chain-gang of slaves makes its way through the night. He's come to bust a slave named Django free. He needs Django to identify a man on his kill list. Django’s never seen anything like Schultz before, but they become unlikely buddies and mutual admirers. As Django, Jamie Foxx lets us see the slave's latent intelligence, recognized by his mentor Schultz. He goes from shuddering like a beaten animal to Superfly in chaps. The friends set out to rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Once they enter the state of Mississippi (screen-high letters act as a portal), it’s as though we’ve entered a demented Hell, presided over by Leonardo DiCaprio as a kind of Satan. A man of wealth and taste, he’s the gleefully sadistic Calvin Candie, the patriarch of the “Candyland” plantation, deeply committed to white supremacy. DiCaprio keeps getting more and more interesting as an actor. This is one of my favorite things he’s done. Here he seems to be channeling Orson Welles as Kane in a twisted way, knit brow over slanting, laughing blue eyes. It is a devilish performance (and maybe a surrogate for the devilish Tarantino).
There’s a wicked-smart performance by Samuel L. Jackson as the “house nigger” Mr. Stephens, all exaggerated mugging and scraping and crowing. There’s a great shot in which Stephens stands over Candie’s shoulder, cackling bug-eyed at his master’s “bon mots” as he regales his guests. Tarantino holds the shot, as if to say, look how insane this is, how evil. And the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, whom Tarantino shares with Scorsese, gives the Victorian interiors of Candyland a vivid, almost surreal quality, a comic book look that heightens the madness.
In a way, Jackson’s performance slyly embodies the brutality of slavery all by itself, but on a psychic level. Look how debased Mr. Stephens had to be. Still, Jackson plays Stephens in a way that also encompasses this man’s agency and cunning as an individual.
(And the obsessive use of the word “nigger” in the film speaks to America’s overriding, abiding obsessions: race and white supremacy. It should also be pointed out that the word is a Blaxploitation trope.)
This brings me to my objections. We want to see Tarantino’s characters as human beings, but he doesn’t always extend them the same courtesy. And so he starts giving us the John Woo moves, with all the balletic carnage, as Django careens through the halls of Candyland gunning people down and blowing things up. In fact, in films that are full of violence but almost never sex, Tarantino’s explosions of gunplay often feel like a (very male) kind of release.
Guns and explosions are great movie thrills, of course, always have been. And to see the halls of a plantation dripping with blood certainly carries a powerful symbolic frisson in America. Still, it winds up feeling like a betrayal of our good faith. “Jackie Brown” is still the only thing he’s done that had much humanity.
Still, "Django Unchained" thrills as the anti-"Birth of a Nation," a film that might make the great D.W. Griffith blanch as white as a Klansman’s sheet.
Of course you’ll never find a Tarantino film where revenge is presented as anything other than a glorious thing. He loves revenge movies. Crucially, he’s not saying it’s a good thing in real life. In fact, I think the most interesting thing about what he’s doing these days is exploring the limits of catharsis in art, the power of fictional revenge and fantasy to “right” some of history’s greatest wrongs.
--January 11, 2013
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)