Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Django Unchained (****)

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino


The last two movies that Quentin Tarantino has made deal with the two biggest eras of racial injustice in America's two-plus centuries of existence. His first one, 2009's Inglourious Basterds, dealt with World War II, in which the German Nazis did their best to exterminate the entire Jewish race in a few years. In that war, the Americans were the good guys. But in his latest movie, Django Unchained, we're moved to what is probably the blackest (forgive the pun) point in the short history of this country: African American slavery. In this era, Southern Americans were not so much the bad guys as they were ignorant orchestrators of centuries worth of oppression that was so deeply rooted in the social and economic infrastructure that it wasn't even considered evil, it was considered a way of life. The Nazis seemed deranged in their genocide, while Americans were straight up stupid and entitled - a very dangerous combination.

Basterds wasn't so much interested in the social aspects of Nazi Germany, outside showing "The Basterds" beat up on Nazis with baseball bats and the thirteen-inch knives. Instead, it was like a tongue-and-cheek middle finger to history, while also being a sly, occasionally hilarious criticism/jerk-off of cinema - both the art of filmmaking and the art of watching films. Django has all the nods to film history (as all Tarantino films do) that are at times blunt to the point of pretension, but this movie is a lot more angry. It is a hell of a lot more pissed off about slavery than Inglourious Basterds was about the Holocaust. And armed with wonderfully colorful performances from Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a tough, brooding turn from Jamie Foxx, Tarantino displays that anger in full bloody glory. 

Foxx stars as the titular Django, a seasoned slave marred by the scars of whips and hot-pokers all around his body. As he is trotting through the cold, chained to a whole slew of fellow slaves through the black of night, his new owners are approached by a strange visitor. It is Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a German-born dentist interested in purchasing one of these chain-ganged slaves. He spots Django, asks him a few quick questions before realizing that he is the one he wants, and then quickly and briskly goes about acquiring him. This actually involves shooting both of the slave owners, before riding away with Django without dropping a cent. We learn pretty early that Schultz usually controls the negotiation.

Later on, Schultz explains that he is, in fact, no longer a dentist but a bounty hunter. He tracks down wanted felons that are wanted dead or alive, kills them and brings them to the law to collect the usually healthy reward. Schultz needs Django's help finding his next target: Django's former enslavers. In return, Schultz agrees to grant Django his freedom and get him reunited with his wife, Broomhilda (Washington). Not only do Django and Schultz complete the job, but they also learn that they make a good team, busting through wanted felons like nothing and making their way out with pockets full of cash. But when Schultz finally locates the whereabouts of Broomhilda, neither he nor Django are pleased to learn that she's been moved to Candieland - a plantation notorious for its size, cruelty and its master, Calvin C. Candie (DiCaprio).

Candieland is a bit of a horror show, even for the Antebellum south. Candie is a particularly sadistic plantation owner who gets an extra kick out of watching "mandingo fighting", i.e. watching two full-grown, muscled slaves beat each other to death with their bare hands. He goes through men fluidly, loving the blood and carnage that piles up. He lives in Candieland with his sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette), with whom their closeness suggests a sinister attraction. The place is mostly run by Stephen (Jackson), a house negro who's just about the only person Candie truly trusts despite being a slave himself. So deep into the culture of the South, Stephen is, that he may end up being the most hateful character in the entire film. It's the gruesome grip of Candie that Django and Schultz wish to get Broomhilda away from, and it proves to be a lot tougher than most of their bounties.

Like most of Tarantino's work, Django is incredibly violent. Blood splatters out of victims like red pudding being flung about by rambunctious children. I don't know if it's worse than Tim Roth sitting in a pool of his own blood for hours in Reservoir Dogs or Uma Thurman dismembering Yakuzas at an unholy rate in Kill Bill, but it seems extra brutal here. There seems to been an African American fantasy aspect, especially in the film's final sequence which plays like one whole fifteen minute "bear Jew" scene, except for Blacks instead of Jews. It seems strange that this kind of film would come from the, from all evidence, very WASP-y Tarantino, and his venture into this territory has certainly brought with it some controversy, but for the first time I really feel like a Tarantino movie is about something. Or, at least, about something that doesn't have to do with cinema itself.

To be sure, Tarantino does still pack the movie with kitschy, film geek cheese (the music, the zoom-ins, even occasionally the dialogue all call back to the land of film's past), but that does not go on to define what the movie is. Maybe it's because Foxx doesn't play Django with any charm, just straight blood-in-the-eyes fucking anger. Django is a hero you can certainly root for, but not someone you'd want to have a beer with - which is so often the case with Tarantino characters, even the evidently psycho ones. The film takes place a few years before Lincoln does, and while they both have similar feelings towards slavery, the two films could not be anymore different in their approach. Lincoln tries to parallel the ignorance of today's anti-gay, anti-progression congress with yesteryear's pro-slavery mindset. Django just wants to see any person (even the black people) who've even pondered the benefits of slavery to die a slow, agonizing death.

I love how irrationally angry Django Unchained is. That it pulsates with a degenerate fever and bloodlust. It is truly unlike any movie I've ever seen about American slavery. It's unflinching and unforgiving. It's no coincidence that the beard that Candie wears seems almost devilish. It's unpredictable, even in its highly predictable structure. It's so different from anything Tarantino has ever done, yet still possesses things that all his other movies do. It's a thrill ride with a running time that spills pretty close to three hours. I think it may be the best film he's made since his only true masterpiece, 1994's Pulp Fiction. More than anything, it's still as hip as anything Tarantino has made in the past, but supplied with a heart and a soul that's usually absent for the sake of a trunk filled with irony.

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