Billy Gray

Django Unchained

In Movie Reviews on January 17, 2013 at 5:05 am

django-dicaprioWhen we first see Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, he’s riding a horsedrawn carriage topped by a big sculpted molar. Schultz is a bounty hunter posing as a dentist, but the toothy avatar might also wink at the enduring role toothaches have played as metaphor for deeper cosmic pain in movies from Citizen Kane to Affliction.

Healing is at the core of Django Unchained, a slavery revenge fantasy and Tarantino’s second straight take—after the Nazi romp Inglourious Basterds—at antic revisionist history of profound global traumas and, as importantly, the movies.

Trundling around the Deep South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained can’t be as explicit about the corrective power of cinema as Basterds, which was littered with references to German propaganda flicks, lionized a fictional Weimar movie siren and climaxed with Nazi higher-ups being gunned down from behind the screen at a red carpet premiere. (If Basterds’ release had coincided with the Aurora theater shootings, it would have been edited beyond recognition and/or shelved for months.)

But cinematic catharsis courses through Tarantino’s eighth feature (depending on how you count Kill Bill Volumes I and II and the Death Proof half of Grindhouse). Schultz tracks down Django (Jamie Foxx), liberates him from a chain gang, and requests his help in tracking down a wanted trio of slave-driving brothers. Django moves from being Schultz’s apprentice to partner to friend, and the pair eventually descend on Calvin Candy’s (Leonard DiCaprio) Mississippi plantation to recover Django’s wife, Broomhilda.

This is Tarantino’s most distilled plotline and sequential execution since Reservoir Dogs. Sustained patches in Django’s first half recall slow burning New Hollywood buddy road flicks like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider and even Midnight Cowboy. I reluctantly admit that one or two mellow segments even flirted with austere dullness, something never attributed to Tarantino even by his detractors.

Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, died in late 2010, which may account for the sputtering pace. Luckily, the director hasn’t lost his sharp eye or his knack for incongruously classical framing that ranks with the clinically subdued Michael Haneke’s. Cinematographer Robert Richardson nimbly toggles between gorgeous shots of rugged landscapes, ornate plantation interiors and, of course, orgiastic violence perpetrated on and by slaves.

The director gives Django time to breathe, at least sporadically and during its first two hours. That might explain why the dialogue doesn’t quite sizzle like it did in many of his earlier films. Waltz gets the best lines, with the German Schultz chalking up his turgid speaking style as a symptom of English being his second language.

As a genteel defense against the savagery around him, Schultz’s inflated poetry is nearly as effective a weapon as his spring arm holstered gun. On the other hand, a lame and drawn out quarrel between klansmen—led by Spender “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson)—moaning about their vision-impairing masks makes you yearn for a leaner, meaner Tarantino, or even producer Harvey Weinstein’s overworked editing room scissors.

Django’s sloppy shortcomings are largely redeemed once the movie settles in Candyland. There, we meet Candy (a frightening DiCaprio, rarely better) and Stephen (Samuel L Jackson, frightening, funny and superb), the effete master’s simpering, sinister house negro. Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, effective despite or because of largely silent appearances in flashback and the present) and Django reunite. Stephen sniffs out the ulterior motives and squeals to Candy. DiCaprio delivers a monologue about the relative cranial capacities of whites and blacks that will make your stomach churn in revolted suspense. Then, the blood rains, splatters and pirouettes.

For all the obligatory and embellished post-Newtown clucking over the violence in Django Unchained, it’s less shocking than it was in the grungy Reservoir Dogs or slickly sick Kill Bill movies. It also feels remote compared to Basterds, which more directly exorcised towering historical demons. In Django, Tarantino is back to framing narrative and morality through genre mash-up. (None of the mostly white audience members during my screening applauded slave owners getting killed off as they did during Basterds’ Nazi inferno.)

The too-velvety smooth Foxx is the blandest part of the movie. He blows a lot of white people away as Django, but I never bought his love for Broomhilda. Waltz is the common denominator between Tarantino’s palliative social studies reimaginings. And although the altruistic Schultz is frankly a bore compared to the sadistic Hans Landa, the actor acquits himself well playing it sweet.

Speaking of acquittal, I wonder what, if anything, Tarantino is trying to say with Waltz playing a really good German inexplicably in the Deep South 80 years before the Holocaust. Is it a commentary on the cyclical or random nature of evil? A sort of retroactive Kraut pardon after Basterds, even if Django is set in the preceding century?

I asked myself this during a lull between the movie’s twin ultraviolent climaxes. This is when a bloated Tarantino shows up in a self-flagellating cameo transporting Foxx to a notoriously brutal mining company. It’s an odd, out of place moment, due in part to the random appearance of hammy Australian accents.

But Tarantino’s very abrupt exit—it involves a belt of dynamite—leaves Django, the ascendant black male, emerging from the director’s ashes. That may be Tarantino’s clearest, and most Tarantino-esque, hat tip yet to the font of his giddy cinematic fever dreams.

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