Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Django Unchained

What happens when one of the few American directors with a recognizable brand name reaches for something bigger? The result might be something like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the director’s attempt to wrestle with both the most American of cinematic archetypes (the Western) and the stain of slavery on our history. Django is Tarantino’s most formally ambitious film for containing his most straightforward narrative, there are no pop culture riffs or anime sequences for him to fall back on. The final product contains moments that Tarantino’s fans will recognize as his own (including moments of graphic violence), but long stretches are stifled by the fact that Tarantino is working in a period that doesn’t allow for irony as a default setting.

Texas 1858: A bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) breaks a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) out of the leg irons that shackle him to a group of other newly acquired slaves. Schultz has a mission in mind; he’s tracking three men with a price on their head and knows that Django can identify them. The first section of Django feels the most like some sort of odd revisionist Western. Schultz and Django, newly minted partners, hunt wanted men while on the receiving end of a steady stream of ugly stares; no one can abide the idea of a black man riding a horse. Schultz, whom Waltz plays with a manic Old World courtliness that’s great fun to watch, is a deadly shot with a rifle and Django soon becomes a gunslinger. There is a comic epic to be made with these two shooting their way across the South while at the same time charming plantation owners like Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Tarantino includes a bizarre and very funny sketch-like scene of Johnson’s character leading a group of hooded men after Schultz and Django, but what happens when the hoods don’t fit?

The word “vengeance” is on the posters for Django Unchained, and though I think the film finally doesn’t work it’s fair to say that Tarantino has tried to make something personal and specific, as opposed to an ahistorical, blacks-kill-whites revenge fantasy. He doesn’t have it in him. Django and Schultz uncover the whereabouts of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and it’s at this point that things go badly wrong. The last section of the film revolves around a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the necessity for Schultz and Django to pose as slavers trying to acquire men for “mandingo fights” (black-on-black fights to the death for the entertainment and wagering of whites) in order to gain Broomhilda’s freedom. Jamie Foxx may have the fewest lines of any main character in a Tarantino film, and though Foxx gives a credible and realistic performance he is giving it in the wrong film. Django is badly underwritten in the second half of the film and is reduced to merely an avatar of revenge as opposed to a character. There isn’t time to consider the cost to Django’s soul for allowing other slaves to be brutalized; although Foxx is capable of playing those scenes, Tarantino isn’t interested in writing them. Kerry Washington, who deserves a great role one of these days, has the same problem. Broomhilda is a object to be won, and though Washington (who has wonderfully expressive eyes) gives it her best she can’t transcend the narrowness of the part.

The actors who fare the best in Django Unchained are the ones who understand what kind of movie they’re in. Leonardo DiCaprio has a ball as Candie, it’s as if DiCaprio decided no one would recognize him with facial hair and so decided to have some fun. The most complicated and revelatory performance in Django Unchained is given by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the man responsible for running Candie’s household. Stephen has internalized his role so much that he is unable to accept any assertion of strength among the other blacks at “Candie Land.”  This character is to my mind the one who should make African-American audiences the most uncomfortable; watching Stephen cozy up to his masters is deeply unpleasant, precisely because it pulls from strain of history too often ignored. Jackson does a sustained, sarcastic version of his usual schtick, it’s too modern but serves Tarantino’s vision of the role well.

Once a director is established, how much ambition does he owe his audience? The trailer for Michael Bay’s new Pain and Gain runs before Django Unchained, Bay’s inclusion of irony feels like as big an advance as Chaplin including sound. Quentin Tarantino wants to work in different periods and genres, but the central action of Django Unchained (man wants wife back) is too general for the film that Tarantino wants to make. We are left with attractive pieces, all oddly stuck together., I don’t know what will turn Tarantino’s head next, but there are some subjects that cannot be breezed through, Tarantino may have earned the right to make it, but Django Unchained is an honorable failure.

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