Film Reviews

Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino

Rating - 6/10

It occurs to me that Quentin Tarantino doesn’t really know how to make a movie.  He’s a pretty decent film craftsman (no Kubrick, Kurosawa or even PTA, but still), he’s a talented writer of snappy dialogue, and he has a great feel for suspense, which is usually built upon a foundation of his snappy dialogue.  When he has these talents operating on all cylinders, as he did in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he can blast right through a host of deficiencies, the primary one being the lack of a story worthy of a feature film’s running time.  A lot of people chalk this up to some deliberate act of post-modernism, but I think it walks too closely hand in hand with his other major weakness, namely his stunted, adolescent boy’s view of the world, to be justified this way.  Ask yourself this – if you took an extremely clever 15 year old boy, schooled not in the classics of art and literature, but in vhs tapes of old movies, with an emphasis on shitty B-movies from 60s and 70s that had a certain panache in their execution and a lot of blood on screen, and you put him in charge of a film crew and gave him a huge budget, what kind of movie would you expect him to make?  I expect it would look something like a latter day Tarantino film, with a particular obsession on revenge of the kind that a teen geek might wish against the bullies that gave him endless wedgies, or more likely, ignored him entirely.

Django Unchained stars tabula rasa Jamie Foxx in the title role as a slave freed by the delightful Christof Waltz, a bounty hunter who decides to join him on a quest for the love of his life, played by the equally blank Kerry Washington.  On the way they have run-ins with a host of supporting players doing yoeman’s work – Don Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owners, and Samuel L. Jackson as a so-called “house nigger” (the word nigger is used profusely which I credit less to the time and subject matter than to a healthy reaction against the recent domination of the phrase “N-Word”, which is the most destructive and idiotic formulation liberal minded people have yet devised), who brings sparkling life to the type of despicable character most would prefer to forget ever existed.  Waltz most of all, having as much screen time as Foxx, carries us through the movie with his charismatic personality and mustache grooming, so that much of the film’s bloated 2 hours 45 minutes is made somewhat worthwhile, with perhaps fewer highlights than a typical Tarantino movie might offer.  Not for lack of trying though, because you can just feel Quentin pumping suspense and significance into a number of scenes which never quite reach the transcendence he achieved in the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, for example.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s sense of humor has not abandoned him, and this keeps us giggling most of the time so we never get completely bored, but by the time Quentin himself shows up onscreen as an inexplicably Australian slave trader, complete with the predictably strained accent, we are painfully aware of the extended running time.  It doesn’t help that right before this scene, the film has reached an anticlimactic climax with a ridiculously bloody shoot out.  This gore-fest made me wince, not because I was disgusted by the blood and guts, but because it felt like so much Tarantino boilerplate, like hauling out BB King at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert to sing The Thrill is Gone for 196,336th time.

But while Quentin’s humor has typically been his salvation, justifying all kinds of depictions of psychopathic behavior, it has begun to take on a sour taste.  This was brought home to me vividly at the screening I attended when (spoiler alert) as Django indiscriminately blows away the homely sister of DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a man behind me burst out in guffaws, reveling in the spectacle.  As far as I could tell from the movie, her greatest sin up to this point was being born a white Southerner.  But I realized suddenly that Tarantino had set this up to be a joke, a bit of comic relief, amidst all the bloodshed.  I wasn’t in on the joke because I’m still expecting violence to come with some justification, or sparing that, a touch of remorse or consequence.  It became clearer than ever before that in his fanboy, Zoroastrian universe, the forces of light get to wreak havoc and punishment on the forces of darkness, and we are supposed to do nothing but enjoy the ride.  Some, mainly teenage boys, are capable of sitting comfortably with this videogame-inspired branch of ethics – I am not.  Does this make me a better person than the legions who will declare Django yet another masterpiece?  Why yes, it does.  That’s why we have ethics in the first place.

I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t credit Tarantino’s skill with the camera which, while sometimes overrated by his admirers, still makes his films a joy to watch.  The grand scenery is rendered beautifully ala John Ford, and the indoor set pieces, such as the brutal Mandingo fight, are made visceral ala Scorsese, and suspenseful ala Hitchcock.  But of course this brings us to yet another Tarantino vice, his endless derivativeness, which makes the experienced filmgoer think of ‘ala’ this or ‘ala’ that, in grand masturbatory geekdom style.  The biggest ‘ala’ of all has to be to Sergio Leone, whom he rips off with abandon.  Check out the many superquick zooms that miss their target and then right themselves.  The constant rape of film history doesn’t stop there of course.  The nonstop cameos referencing other films also are getting to be more distracting than resonant.  I even missed a major one my fiancée pointed out, with the appearance of Franco Nero, who played Django in the Italian films of the 60s that went by that name.  I should have known.  If you’re ever wondering what an actor with a couple lines that add nothing to the plot is doing there, a few minutes on IMDB and Wikipedia will clear it up.  Likewise, the use of pop music, from Jim Croce to John Legend, is about as predictable as the use of spaghetti western composer Ennio Morrocine.  Nevertheless, his choices are usually wise ones and more often than not, oddly appropriate.

So I have to say I’m genuinely conflicted over this film, which I sort of enjoyed through most of its length.  But Tarantino’s stunted vision still sticks in my throat, and I bristle at all the people calling this, as they do every one of his films, a masterpiece.  I’m sticking to my assertion that true greatness has eluded him on the scale of a whole film.  If he ever had aspirations of making a film that would stand next to The Rules of the Game, Vertigo or The Godfather, he’s going to have to dig a little deeper than Sergio Leone and John Woo for inspiration.  His recent statements about quitting before he stopped making great films dismays me, since it doesn’t sound like he’s really too keen on striving for those lofty heights in the future.  He has bought his own hype, and believes he’s already there.