Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained

2012, Quentin Tarantino -- in theatre

I don't know where to start talking about Django Unchained.  With the voluminous discussion surrounding it, it's evident Tarantino has created yet another intensely provocative and divisive piece of art/trash.  It is a complex film that challenges and entertains continually and consistently.  It's not a perfect movie, and it's not the best movie ever made, or of the year, or even of Tarantino's oeuvre, but it's very likely the most interesting film of 2012 and of Tarantino's career, and as such will no doubt have a longevity (both in watchability and in spawning conversation/debate) that will surpass all but one percent of one percent of films made.

The subject of slavery is a largely avoided one in cinema.  It's a shameful and horrifying aspect of America's past, and the resonance of its ill effects still permeates Western culture to this day.  It's a part of the conversation on the systemic racism that America (but not America alone) was built upon and in many regards still carries with it.  It's not deemed a marketable or bankable subject, so it gets tiptoed around or sidestepped entirely, particularly in Western entertainment.  I can think of only a few pieces of modern cinema or television that deal with it in any regard (Color Purple, Amistad, Roots, Mandingo, Lincoln I guess).  Quentin Tarantino isn't out to make a commentary piece, he's out to make entertainment.  At the same time, he's going to confront you with the evils of oppression and people trafficking and racism, flat out.  It's the backdrop of the film.  Django Unchained couldn't exist without a whole lot of racists getting all worked up about a black man on a horse.

I don't know that the audience is ever supposed to feel comfortable with the word "nigger" bandied about so prolifically, but Tarantino is well aware the power of the word, and as it's bandied about around a thousand times in the film's near 3-hour run-time I'm wondering if it's more charged or diffused.  Either way, it's just another uncomfortable and necessary part of the portrait of the racist old South that Django resides in.  Tarantino uses that racism is used in a variety of ways.  It's used for comedic effect as often as it's used for dramatic effect. It's used for suspense and body horror, it's used to provoke the audience, to offend, anger and entertain.  Tarantino flexes racism around every genre convention in such a way as to dilute or amplify its potency depending on the needs of the script.

As typical for a Tarantino film, the script is fresh in its outlook, marrying the conventions of spaghetti westerns, exploitation, and revenge drama with his gifted flair for dialogue, taking what's old and making it vital again.  The visual queues are a collage of other cinematic moments and homages, but largely left to those die-hard cinephiles to point out.  Regardless, it's a great looking film.  The structure of the script plays out in four acts, though from what I've heard, it's even been edited down despite it's current lengthy status.  The first act is the liberation of Django by Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter.  The second is the education and emancipation of Django, as Dr. Schultz teaches him his trade, and plays semantics with Big Daddy Bennett at his plantation.  The third act is Django's empowerment, as he takes control of the grift he and Dr. Schultz set to play on Calvin Candie.  The fourth act is straight up Django unleashing his fury, straight up revenge fulfillment.

Each act allows for a key scene for an actor to take over.  Christoph Waltz is brilliant, and Tarantino's dialogue dances off his tongue, he controls every scene in the first act effortlessly, with a refined charm and such absence of menace that his violent actions always come as a surprise.  The second act gives, oddly, Don Johnson the spotlight as the cartoonish Colonel Sanders-like Big Daddy.  The act culminates in a halting, yet uproariously (and still uncomfortably) entertaining sequence about hoods and eye holes.  Big Daddy is the cartoonish opposite to whom we meet in the third act.  It's owned by Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor whom I have little reverence for.  It's a testament to Tarantino's script writing as well as directing that he finally provided a DiCaprio performance I didn't just tolerate, but actively admired.  DiCaprio is filled with menace masked by a congeniality that makes him all the more evil.  The final act gives over completely to Jamie Foxx who takes Django on his arduous journey.  He largely services the actors and the sequences throughout much of the first three acts.  He provides a presence for them to discuss, to act around, but the third act it's all Foxx, as he is gifted one BAMF (think Jules' wallet from Pulp Fiction for that acronym) moment after another.  Special recognition naturally goes to Sam Jackson for his comical but viciously evil performance as Candie's longest serving slave, the reprehensible "house nigger", as Django details, who subjugates his own people for the betterment of himself and his masters.  Somewhere within Jackson's performance are other, earnest emotions that defy explanation (Stockholm syndrome seems to underplay it) yet are deeply rooted in his brilliantly complex character work.

The film is as raw and violent as any of Tarantino's pictures.  That should come to no surprise to anyone who's followed the director's career.  He has a thing for Grindhouse sensationalism, and he employs it as deftly here as he does in every other film he's done.  The mandingo fighting sequence is particularly the most shocking (out of a bevvy of shocking sequences), the casualness of the observers giving it more potency in the same vein as the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs or the Gimp sequence of Pulp Fiction.  Horrible people doing horrible things with little reverence for how horrible they are.

After a few weeks of reflection, I have to say that I loved Django Unchained.  There's a raw nerve exposed all throughout the lengthy run-time of the film, one that's tweaked equally with sugar and with a bracing blast of cold water.  It's an experience that left me remarkably uncomfortable in how entertained I was.  Others will fall further down the uncomfortable side, while others still will just be outright offended.  What I was left wondering was how many were going to be entertained but for the wrong reason.  How many would identify not with the protagonist, but with his oppressors.  It's the most unsettling part to me, knowing that they're out there.  But I like a film tremendously that can challenge and spark up a lot of intelligent discussion and debate, whether about serious stuff like violence, or racism, or less immediate topics like art and cinema.  If a film can truly inspire this much smart discussion, there must be something smart about it, n'est pas?