Django Unchained (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love some of Tarantino’s films
I’m “biast” (con): hate some of Tarantino’s films
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
This is why I can’t quit Quentin Tarantino, even when some of his films make me so angry I get damn near apoplectic. Because when he’s good, he’s downright genius. When he’s good, he makes me figure he’s not only the best American filmmaker working today but perhaps the most quintessentially American filmmaker ever. When he’s good, he leaves me no recourse but to get as superlative as I can and say ridiculous things like: Is it possible that this nerdy white boy has made the most important, most unmissable film yet about slavery in America– no, wait, about race in America even as it exists as an issue right up to this very day? Could only a nerdy white boy get away with making a movie that combines the fractious urgency of pulp fiction and the visceral gore of splatter movies and the unfettered ranginess of westerns — note: three uniquely American genres — and make it about a black man killing white people and riddle it with countless repetitions of the word nigger… and after all of that leave us with a sense that this is in no way a racist film, and is in fact quite the opposite?
So many marvelous contradictions and astonishments to be found in Django Unchained! How is it that Tarantino — both fearless screenwriter here as well as brash director; he gives himself a cheeky cameo, too — can tell a story that could not be more about race and make it feel postracial? I will guess, for starters, that part of it is down to the character of Django — “the d is silent” — who is one of the juiciest, most complex, most intriguing, most human heroes pulp fiction has ever seen. He just happens to be black– Well, no: he doesn’t “just happen” to be black. As an unexpectedly freed slave in Texas in 1858, there couldn’t be a less color-blind role, yet Hollywood doesn’t “just happen” to tell stories about such men, as a general rule. But Tarantino treats the mere fact of his protagonist with a kind of offhandedness that might mislead you into suspecting there’s nothing particularly unusual about the story he has crafted around Django — and then he hands this role over to Jamie Foxx (Rio, Due Date), who sashays into it with the same casual acceptance. It’s almost as if this is the product of some glorious future world in which black action heroes are as unremarkable in their numbers as white ones.
From Django’s freeing by a bounty hunter who needs his help, Tarantino spins a dark fantasia of the pre-Civil War South that is hilarious, ferocious, shocking, and wise, sometimes all at once. This is Tarantino unchained, even more so than usual. He is unafraid to be pointed, as with the bounty hunter who frees Django: he is a former dentist who is constantly introducing himself as Dr. King Schultz, inevitable emphasis (to our ears, anyway) on the “Dr. King.” He is unafraid to be absurd, crafting for Django a wife still bound in slavery who is called Broomhilda (Kerry Washington: The Details, Lakeview Terrace), dubbed so by a German mistress slaveowner… which creates in Schultz, also a German abroad in the United States, a sense of mythic obligation for him to help Django rescue her, what with Brunhilde, her namesake, being a German national heroine and all. And brilliantly, Tarantino dares to cast the indispensable Christoph Waltz (Carnage) as Schultz, in a very different role from the Nazi he played in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is as deadpan funny here as he was chilling there, and in any other film that wasn’t so crammed full of awesome as this one is, you’d have to concede that he steals it. Here, what is one of the best performances of the year is just one more bauble to be dazzled by.
Tarantino plays with the power of myth not only via Broomhilda but all over Django on all sorts of levels, both overt and meta. It’s in the Bible pages one disgusting white overseer has pinned to his clothes in preparation for a “righteous” whipping of a slave. It’s in the unexpected relationship between brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (a savage Leonardo DiCaprio: J. Edgar, Inception) — to whose enterprise Django and Schultz trace Broomhilda — and his slave butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson [Marvel’s The Avengers, The Samaritan], simply fantastic), which undercuts literal and figurative black-and-white notions about slavery by exploring the complicity of some slaves in enforcing the servitude of others. It’s in how he holds up for ridicule white men in white hoods, rendering proto Klansman ineffectual buffoons. It’s in the unexpected use of unlikely ananchronistic pop music on the soundtrack, bringing together 20th- and 21st-century myths of open spaces and black power in a way that seems to slam open rooms in the American uber story that had been exclusionary of anyone not white (and again doing so in ways so nonchalant that it’s simultaneously funny and poignant).
Many filmmakers appreciate the mythic power of cinema, but few can so effortlessly whip up moments that create their own instant mythology, as Tarantino does with almost everything that Django does onscreen… while never being self-conscious about it. I don’t just love this film — I love that a film like this can exist and be this delicious and this smart and this daring and this kickass and take no shit from anyone. If Tarantino can get away with this, why do so few other filmmakers even try?