Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Quentin Tarantino loves mixing low and high art in his films, but until DJANGO UNCHAINED he never combined disparate ingredients to make a cocktail of the Molotov variety.  Through exploitation film violence and articulate dialogue--fancypants talk, as the film’s villains might say--the writer-director creates a lurid, funny, and smart entertainment that sneaks in potent commentary on racism in America and the movies. DJANGO UNCHAINED can be enjoyed purely for its numerous surface pleasures--Robert Richardson’s widescreen cinematography, the screenplay structure mirroring Germanic legend, and the clever, unconventional soundtrack cues--but careful study reveals it also to be a work expressing historical and contemporary fury.  

The film opens in 1858, roughly two years before the start of the Civil War, with German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) enlisting the help of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in his pursuit of three brothers with nice prices on their heads.  Django is glad to cooperate, as the wanted men heaped abuse on him and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he’s recently been separated from.  Schultz promises to pay Django and give him his freedom once they’ve found and killed the Brittle brothers, but rather than parting ways, they become partners in acquiring Broomhilda’s independence.

They learn that she was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Francophile owner of a notorious Mississippi plantation.  To make Candie’s acquaintance Schultz pretends to be interested in getting into the mandingo fight game, in which slaves spar to the death.  Django will pose as Schultz’s expert, a black slaver.  While their ruse might fool Candie, his head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is more suspicious of their motives.

Playing a role is one of the recurring themes in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and it’s a sly way for Tarantino to discuss how African-Americans are often required to adapt to pass in what gets defined as mainstream culture.  Django must swallow his pride and put forth a different appearance to achieve what he desires.  In that manner he’s no different than Stephen, an Uncle Tom whose demeanor shifts enormously when addressing blacks or whites and within a group or in private.  (Even Schultz, who does not bear the burden of being a racial outsider but is a foreigner, must adopt an exaggerated appearance of propriety and intellect to be perceived as less threatening.)  Not breaking character is literally a matter of life and death.     
Tarantino also dissects politeness as a defensive weapon, with the artful in-joke that Waltz’s Dr. King is expertly practiced in it, and the dropping of formal civility as an offensive action.  After all, DJANGO UNCHAINED turns on the refusal to shake hands. Passive resistance and dampened emotions can’t help but be unleashed in a more explosive form after so long of a struggle to keep them in check.  It’s a neat trick that Tarantino evokes the volatility of the 1960s civil rights campaign and the Civil War battlefield with a bloody shootout inside a plantation house.     

Tarantino’s films have a complicated relationship with violence.  He enjoys bloody revenge fulfilled on screen yet can be repulsed by having the basest of impulses satisfied.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is no different.  Tarantino’s expert use of sound and suggestion convey the horrific treatment of slaves without lingering over it.  (His reputation for depicting violent acts is greater than what’s actually visible.)  The violence exacted upon the villains, almost all white, is more explicit visually, but in featuring blood geysers taken from the trashy movies that inspire him, it’s cartoonish too.  Somehow he finds a way to be responsible with on-screen violence and wallow in its disreputable appeal.

Django must hold his passion in reserve for much of the film, which makes it all the easier to overlook Foxx’s subdued performance.  The character mustn’t betray his feelings, so the power of Foxx’s work is found in his eyes and posture and how he withholds the anger burning inside him.  If ever an actor was born to deliver Tarantino’s words, it’s Waltz.  He savors the ornate sentences and brings lightness to the heavy narrative lifting he’s called upon to execute.  Waltz also displays crack comic timing that he shows off when he walks Django through his method of doing business.  DiCaprio relishes playing the self-regarding creep and does a dazzling flip from southern-fried hospitality to menace.  Jackson gets the difficult task of acting the part of a classic Hollywood stereotype, but he fleshes out his despicable character as Django’s opposite. A white man gave Stephen the opportunity to have some latitude too and he took it. Tarantino supports the fantastic performances by letting major conversation-driven scenes play out in wide shots and thus allows observing the dynamics between multiple characters at once.

DJANGO UNCHAINED presents Tarantino as a film critic and cultural analyst.  He’s a highly gifted filmmaker whose work is more thoughtful and nuanced than the statements he sometimes offers while playing the manic provocateur part in publicity appearances. This bloody, hilarious, shocking, and righteously angry film is the kind of great art and great trash he aspires to make.

Grade: A

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