January 16, 2013 by Zack
I don’t know that I can say Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers. Although, I will say this: when he makes a great movie, he makes me re-think that position. But his career hasn’t been all that consistent. After getting off to a fine start with the slightly superficial but entertaining “Reservoir Dogs”, he really stepped up with “Pulp Fiction”–and then, seemed to disappear. “Jackie Brown” was a nice sleeper, but it was a bit of a let down after something as great as “Pulp Fiction”. Then came “Kill Bill”, a movie that literally split me in two. I liked elements of it, but I didn’t love any of it. His “Grindhouse” offering of “Death Proof” left me unimpressed as well. Oh, and as far as a screenwriter–I did really enjoy “True Romance” as well.
Then came “Inglourious Basterds”, probably my favorite of all of his films. It was Tarantino at his finest–not just as Tarantino, but as a filmmaker in general. He just flat out nailed it with that picture. It was epic, it was haunting, it was funny, it was enthralling, and it was moving, on top of it being just plain interesting throughout.
He follows it with “Django Unchained”, a film I had a lot of interest in because he seemed to be very inspired by Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone (two Sergios, one…nevermind) and I was intrigued to see what he did with the taboo context of the story, which revolves around slavery.
Tarantino knows how to cast a film, that’s for sure. He enlists again the help of one of the finest actors out there right now, Christoph Waltz, to play the sidekick to the hero of the film, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. Immediately, the film looks appealing. Throughout it, there are some trademark Tarantino moments, and there are some just flat out great scenes. Jamie Foxx is certainly Oscar-worthy, proving again how strong he is as a leading man.
But as a movie, on the whole, something just didn’t work for me. As much as I hate to admit it, I think it truly is the context in which the story revolves around. There is almost too much joy involved with this film in order to give it a pass for taking place during the time of slavery, which is a scar that will never go away in this country. We can move past it, we can forgive it somehow–but to create a fun action western picture out of it, just left me cold.
Django is a freed slave by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) who becomes a bounty hunter with him, ”making money killing white people”. We learn that Django is married and his wife is being held at a very fancy plantation owned by a charismatic young man named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his finest role in years). Through most of the first half of the film, we see Django and Schultz’ exploits as bounty hunters, going after villainous slave owners and racists, in the name of revenge I suppose. There’s one would-be comic scene in which one of the racists (played by Don Johnson) known as Big Daddy tries to rally some men to lynch Django and Schultz wearing masks. But the holes aren’t quite where they should, and it winds up causing a stir among the posse. I know Tarantino wanted to lighten the mood here and say “Haha look at these idiot racists!” But the scene to me just fell flat. It was so childishly written and almost just too goofy for a movie like this. And it sends a mixed message, which permeates this whole film. Just what is Tarantino’s feeling about this time period? He just throws so much at the screen that it’s hard to really tell if he gets his own movie this time.
On the one hand, we’re given very loud clanging sound effects when we hear the men in chains. That was on purpose. And effective. We’re shown some brutal scenes of slaves being whipped, including Django’s poor wife Broomhilda (played by the appealing Kerry Washington). But then, we’re given scenes like the mask scene and a few others of confusing humor and outright gruesome violence that borderlines cartoonish. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I don’t think Tarantino walked it very well. Certainly not like he did in “Basterds” where there was very little cartoonery and there were no scenes of torture or anything that would muddle the message.
Where the film works best is when the two bounty hunters reach Candie’s plantation (known as Candieland). There is a lot of building tension, broken a few times by an hilarious and welcoming performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a servant named Stephen. DiCaprio is at the top of his game as the gleeful but careful Calvin; and both Django and Schultz know what is on the line in order to save Django’s wife from her master.
I think this film, like “Kill Bill”, and some of Tarantino’s weaker works, suffers from being unfocused. When Tarantino has no clear vision, and just wants to have fun, he creates what I call a “hammock film”. It’s lazy, it’s unsure, and even though it can be entertaining, it just hangs there with no real purpose. I could never really figure out “Django Unchained” as a film. It wants to be a lark, it wants to make a statement sometimes, but it doesn’t come through because Tarantino is too interested in his style.
There’s something I want to contrast, and it’s a bit pretentious, but it involves food. Take the “strudel” scene in “Inglourious Basterds”. And take the “white cake” scene in “Django Unchained”. The strudel represents something–Germany. In it, Shosanna must put on a happy face and…well, EAT Germany. She is forced to enjoy something sweet that makes her sick. It in itself is torture, representing everything she hates. That is good writing. That has substance. The white cake in “Django Unchained” simply serves as a device for a violent shootout. I have no doubt Tarantino meant something with making it “white cake”–but that is exactly all this film really is.
And Tarantino can do a lot better than white cake.